Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch

This book looks at the fireship, one of the most feared weapons of the age of sail. Best known to British readers because of its role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the heyday of the fireship came during the series of Anglo-Dutch Wars, and it remained in use into the early years of the nineteenth century.

Kirsch starts with a look at the Ancient precursors of the fireship. This section hints at the high quality of what is to come - even though it lies outside the main period of the book, there is a interesting account of the debate over the nature of Greek Fire.

The text is well organised, with a mix of chapters on particular wars and examples of the use of fireships mixed in with chapters on the design, building and crewing of the ships. He also examines the moral backdrop to the use of the fireship, which sometimes met with disapproval from more conventional naval authorities.

Krisch has produced a book that combines a wide scope with an impressive detailed knowledge of naval warfare over the three centuries that saw the fireship at its most potent. A good number of vivid contemporary accounts of fireship actions support the text, giving us a clear idea of the fear inspired by these often ineffective weapons.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with some very impressive double-page spreads. Hardly any page is without a picture or diagram of some sort, each well chosen to illustrate the text.

This is a very impressive piece of work – a high quality monograph that does full justice to its subject. Kirsch has produced an essential read for anyone interested in naval warfare in the age of sail.

Firepots and Greek Fire
The Hellburners of Antwerp
John Hawkins and the Spanish Fireship
The Invincible Armada
The Fireship joins the Battlefleet
The Mother-and-Child Boat and other Chinese Specialities
The Battle of the Downs
Acquiring and Fitting out Fireships
The Captain and his Crew
The First Anglo-Dutch War
The Second Anglo-Dutch War: the pinnacle of fireship success
The Four Days' Battle
Fireship against Fireship: the Second Anglo-Dutch War continues
Countermeasures: Changing tactics and fireship warfare
The Line of Battle dominates: the Third Angle-Dutch War and the Scanian War
Purpose-built Fireships, Machines-vessels and Others
FIreships in the Eighteenth Century
The Last Fireships: the nineteenth century

Author: Peter Kirsch
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2009

Why decorate a fireship?

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Recently Browsing 0 members

No registered users viewing this page.

About us

Modelshipworld - Advancing Ship Modeling through Research

SSL Secured

Your security is important for us so this Website is SSL-Secured

NRG Mailing Address

Nautical Research Guild
237 South Lincoln Street
Westmont IL, 60559-1917

Helpful Links

About the NRG

If you enjoy building ship models that are historically accurate as well as beautiful, then The Nautical Research Guild (NRG) is just right for you.

The Guild is a non-profit educational organization whose mission is to “Advance Ship Modeling Through Research”. We provide support to our members in their efforts to raise the quality of their model ships.

The Nautical Research Guild has published our world-renowned quarterly magazine, The Nautical Research Journal, since 1955. The pages of the Journal are full of articles by accomplished ship modelers who show you how they create those exquisite details on their models, and by maritime historians who show you the correct details to build. The Journal is available in both print and digital editions. Go to the NRG web site ( to download a complimentary digital copy of the Journal. The NRG also publishes plan sets, books and compilations of back issues of the Journal and the former Ships in Scale and Model Ship Builder magazines.

Our Emblem™

©2006-2021, Nautical Research Guild. 'Model Ship World' and 'MSW' are trademarks ™. Powered by Invision Community


Ancient era, first uses Edit

The oldest known use of a fire ship was in ancient China in the Battle of Red Cliffs (208) on the Yangtze River when Huang Gai assaulted Cao Cao's naval forces with a fire ship filled with bundles of kindling, dry reeds, and fatty oil.

Fire ships were decisively employed by the Vandals against the armada sent by the Eastern Roman Empire, in the Battle of Cape Bon (468).

The invention of Greek fire in 673 increased the use of fire ships, at first by the Greeks and afterward by other nations as they came into possession of the secret of manufacturing this substance. In 951 and again in 953 Russian fleets narrowly escaped destruction by fire ships. [ citation needed ]

Age of fighting sail, refinement Edit

While fire ships were used in the Medieval period, notably during the crusades, these were typically ships that were set up with combustibles on an adhoc basis. The career of the modern fire ship, as a naval vessel type designed for this particular function and made a permanent addition to a fleet, roughly parallels the era of cannon-armed sailing ships, beginning with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and lasting until the Allied victory over the Turks at the Battle of Navarino in 1827. The first modern fireships were put to use in early 17th century Dutch and Spanish fleet actions during the Thirty Years War. Their use increased throughout that century, with purpose-built fireships a permanent part of many naval fleets, ready to be deployed whenever necessary. Initially small and often obsolete smaller warships were chosen as fireships but by 1700 fireships were being purpose-built with specific features for their role. Most were adaptations of the usual small warships of the day – brigs or ship-rigged sloops-of-war with between 10 and 16 guns. The practical design features of purpose-built fireships included a lattice-work false deck below the planks of the main deck – the planks would be removed and the combustibles and explosives stacked on the lattice, which gave good draught and ensured the fire would hold and spread. A number of square-section chimneys would be let into the forecastle and quarterdeck to also help ensure a good draught for the fire. The gunports would be hinged at the bottom (rather than the top as on other warships) so that they would be kept open by gravity rather than ropes (which would otherwise burn thorough), further ensuring a good air supply. On the other hand, the lower parts of the masts would be surrounded by 'coffer dams' to ensure that the fire would not bring down the masts prematurely and thus deprive the fireship of motive power. Grappling hooks would be fitted to the ends of the yardarms so that the fireship would become entangled in its target's rigging. A large sally-port door was let into the rear quarter of the ship (usually the starboard side) to allow easy exit for the crew once the fire had been set and lit. There was often a chain fixed here for mooring the escape boat rather than a rope that may have been damaged by the fire. Because fireships were used relatively rarely and only in specific tactical conditions even in their heyday, and there was always demand for small cruisers and warships, most purpose-built 'fireships' served long careers as ordinary warships without ever being used for their actual purpose. Of the five fireships used in Holmes's Bonfire of 1666 three had been in service with the Royal Navy for over a decade before being deployed on their final mission.

While only used sparingly during the Napoleonic Wars, fire ships as a distinct class were part of the British Royal Navy until 1808, at which point the use of permanently designated fire ships attached to British squadrons disappeared. [4] Fire ships continued to be used, sometimes to great effect, such as by the U.S. Navy at the Battle of Tripoli Harbor in 1804 and by the British Navy's Thomas Cochrane at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809, but for the most part they were considered an obsolete weapon by the early 19th century.

Warships of the age of sail were highly vulnerable to fire. Made of wood, with seams caulked with tar, ropes greased with fat, and stores of gunpowder, there was little that would not burn. Accidental fires destroyed many ships, so fire ships presented a terrifying threat. With the wind in exactly the right direction a fire ship could be cast loose and allowed to drift onto its target, but in most battles fire ships were equipped with skeleton crews to steer the ship to the target (the crew were expected to abandon ship at the last moment and escape in the ship's boat). Fire ships were most devastating against fleets which were at anchor or otherwise restricted in movement. At sea, a well-handled ship could evade a fire ship and disable it with cannon fire. Other tactics were to fire at the ship's boats and other vessels in the vicinity, so that the crew could not escape and therefore might decide not to ignite the ship, or to wait until the fire ship had been abandoned and then tow it aside with small maneuverable vessels such as galleys.

The role of incendiary vessels changed throughout the age of the modern fire ship. The systematic use of fire ships as part of naval actions peaked around the Third Anglo-Dutch War. Whereas just twenty years before a naval fleet might have six to seven fire ships, by the Battle of Solebay in 1672 both the Dutch and English fleets employed typically between 20 and 30 fire ships, and sometimes more. [5] By this time, however, admirals and captains had become very experienced with the limitations of fire ship attacks and had learned how to avoid them during battle. Great numbers of fire ships were expended during the Third Dutch War without destroying enemy men-of-war, and fire ships had become a way to harass and annoy the enemy, rather than destroy him. [6] The successful use of fire ships at the Battle of La Hogue and Cherbourg in 1692 marked both the greatest achievement of a fire ship attack since the Spanish Armada, and also the last significant success for fire ships. Though fire ships as a specified class sailed with the British Royal Navy for another century, they would never have a significant impact on a naval victory. Once the most feared weapons in naval arsenals, fire ships had declined in both importance and numbers, so that by the mid-18th century only five to six British fire ships would be at sea at a time, and the Royal Navy attempted only four attacks using modern fire ships between 1697 and 1800. [7] Hastily outfitted ad hoc fire ships continued to be used in naval warfare for example, a large number of fire rafts were used in mostly ineffective attacks on the British fleet by American forces during the American Revolution at Philadelphia, on the Hudson River, and elsewhere. The end of the modern fire ship came in the early 19th century, when the British began to use hastily outfitted fire ships at engagements such as Boulogne and Dunkirk despite the presence of purpose-built fire ships in the fleet. The last modern fire ship in the British Royal Navy was Thais, the only designated fire ship out of the entire navy of 638 warships when she was converted to a ship sloop in 1808. [8]

Use in the Greek War of Independence Edit

In the Greek War of Independence, 1821–1832, the extensive use of fire ships by the Greeks allowed them to counterbalance the Turkish naval superiority in terms of ship size and artillery power. [9] As the small fire ships were much more maneuverable than enemy ships of the line, especially in the coasts of the Aegean Sea where the islands, islets, reefs, gulfs and straits restrained big ships from being easily moved, they were a serious danger for the ships of the Turkish fleet. Many naval battles of the Greek war of independence were won by the use of fire ships. The successful use of fireships required the use of the element of surprise (a visible similarity with modern-day naval special operations). It is considered an important landmark in Greek naval tradition. [ citation needed ]

19th and 20th centuries, obsolescence Edit

From the beginning of the 19th century, steam propulsion and the use of iron, rather than wood, in shipbuilding gradually came into use, making fire ships less of a threat. [ citation needed ]

During the American Civil War, the Confederate States Navy occasionally used fire rafts on the Mississippi River. These were flatboats loaded with flammable materials such as pine knots and rosin. [10] The fire rafts were set alight and either loosed to drift on the river's current towards the enemy (for example at the Battle of the Head of Passes) [10] or else pushed against Union ships by tugboats (as at the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip). [11]

During World War II in September 1940, there was a British sortie codenamed Operation Lucid to send old oil tankers into French ports to destroy barges intended for the planned invasion of Britain it was abandoned when both tankers broke down. [12] Ships or boats packed with explosives could still be effective. Such a case was Operation Chariot of 1942, in which the old destroyer HMS Campbeltown was packed with explosives and rammed into the dry dock at Saint-Nazaire, France, to deny its use to the battleship Tirpitz, which could not drydock anywhere else on the French west coast. In the Mediterranean, the Italian Navy made good use of high-speed boats filled with explosives, mostly against moored targets. Each boat, called by the Italians MTM (Motoscafo da Turismo Modificato), carried 300 kilograms (660 lb) of explosive charge inside its bow. Their best-known action was the 1941 assault on Souda Bay, which resulted in the destruction of cruiser HMS York and the Norwegian tanker Pericles, of 8,300 tons. [13] [14]

The successful attack by Yemeni insurgents in a speedboat packed with explosives on the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in 2000 could be described as an extension of the idea of a fireship. Another explosive ship attack took place in April 2004, during the Iraq War, when three motor craft laden with explosives attempted the bombing of Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal in the Persian Gulf. In an apparent suicide bombing, one blew up and sank a rigid inflatable boat from USS Firebolt as it pulled up alongside, killing two US Navy personnel and one member of the US Coast Guard. [15]

Dec 2009: Vol. 8, Issue 3

The 2009 U.S. Naval Academy Naval History Symposium Papers
The first installment in the 2009 Symposium collaboration between the IJNH and the USNA History Department.


David Fairbank White, Bitter Ocean : The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Review by Kathleen Broome Williams
Cogswell Polytechnical College

Peter Kirsch, Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Translated from the German by John Harland, Naval Institute Press, 2009.
Review by Robert Oxley
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

John Perryman and Brett Mitchell, Australia’s Navy in Vietnam: Royal Australian Navy Operations 1965-72, Topmill Pty Ltd., 2007.
Review by John Darrell Sherwood
Naval History and Heritage Command

Charles R. Kubic and James P. Rife, Bridges to Baghdad : The U.S. Navy Seabees in the Iraq War, Thomas Publications, 2009.
Review by John Darrell Sherwood
Naval History & Heritage Command

Jonathan R. Dull, The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British & French Navies, 1650-1815, University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Review by Robert Oxley
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Edward S. Miller, Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor, Naval Institute Press, 2007.
Review by Jonathan Reed Winkler
Wright State University

Brian Vale, Cochrane in the Pacific: Fortune and Freedom in Spanish America, I.B. Tauris, 2008.
Review by Professor Charles Steele
Department of History, United States Air Force Academy

Carl LaVO, The Galloping Ghost: The Extraordinary Life of Submarine Legend Eugene Fluckey, Naval Institute Press, 2007.
Review by Kathleen Broome Williams
Cogswell Polytechnical College


September 2008, Number 20
Edited by Professor Eric Mills,
Dalhousie University

Prepared in Association with
The International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science
Division of the History of Science
Commission of the History of Oceanography

This page provides access to all past issues of the Newsletter.

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch - History

Need a currency converter? Check for live rates

Other formats available Price
Fireship Hardback Add to Basket £40.00
Fireship ePub (57.6 MB) Add to Basket £13.00

The fireship was the guided missile of the sailing era. Packed with incendiary (and sometimes explosive) material, it was aimed at its highly inflammable wooden target by volunteers who bailed out into a boat at the last moment. It often missed, but the panic it invariably caused among crews who generally could not swim and had no method of safely abandoning ship did the job for it - the most famous example being the attack off Gravelines in 1588 which led to the rout of the Spanish Armada.

Although it was a tactic used in antiquity, its successful revival in the Armada campaign led to the adoption of the fireship as an integral part of the fleet. During the seventeenth century increasingly sophisticated 'fireworks' were designed into purpose-built ships, and an advance doctrine was worked out for their employment. Fireship reveals the full impact of the weapon on naval history, looks at the technology and analyses the reasons for its decline.

This is the first history of a potent, much used but little understood weapon.

It would be hard for anyone to write a better book on fireships than this one.

Read the full review here.

Hellbound - Steve Earles

This is a fine book about a relitively little-known aspect of naval warfare, and is full of surprises.

Fascinating detailed information on the internal conversions of fireships, and the disposition of the combustibles and fuses of fireships.

The book is well produced and well illustrated. A most interesting piece of research.

The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 2011

Some achievement for only his second book! Highly recommended.

The Nautical Magazine

The book is lavishly illustrated, with some very impressive double-page spreads. Hardly any page is without a picture or diagram of some sort, each well chosen to illustrate the text.

This is a very impressive piece of work – a high quality monograph that does full justice to its subject. Kirsch has produced an essential read for anyone interested in naval warfare in the age of sail.

Peter Kirsch is a German ship enthusiast and modelmaker. Educated at Heidelberg University Peter is a practicing dentist and freelances as a historian. His previous book The Galleon was published both here and in the US and Germany. He has contributed to many periodicals and publications and is an active member of a number of maritime associations.

Why decorate a fireship?

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Recently Browsing 0 members

No registered users viewing this page.

About us

Modelshipworld - Advancing Ship Modeling through Research

SSL Secured

Your security is important for us so this Website is SSL-Secured

NRG Mailing Address

Nautical Research Guild
237 South Lincoln Street
Westmont IL, 60559-1917

Helpful Links

About the NRG

If you enjoy building ship models that are historically accurate as well as beautiful, then The Nautical Research Guild (NRG) is just right for you.

The Guild is a non-profit educational organization whose mission is to “Advance Ship Modeling Through Research”. We provide support to our members in their efforts to raise the quality of their model ships.

The Nautical Research Guild has published our world-renowned quarterly magazine, The Nautical Research Journal, since 1955. The pages of the Journal are full of articles by accomplished ship modelers who show you how they create those exquisite details on their models, and by maritime historians who show you the correct details to build. The Journal is available in both print and digital editions. Go to the NRG web site ( to download a complimentary digital copy of the Journal. The NRG also publishes plan sets, books and compilations of back issues of the Journal and the former Ships in Scale and Model Ship Builder magazines.

Our Emblem™

©2006-2021, Nautical Research Guild. 'Model Ship World' and 'MSW' are trademarks ™. Powered by Invision Community

‘The man who makes use of fire in the attack, shows intelligence.’

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, c512

AS SOON AS MAN DISCOVERED HOW TO travel on water, using wood or other organic material for transport, he found that these materials could catch fire, causing the destruction of the vessel and loss of life among its crew. Man was not just inventive enough to find ways of making life simpler and more comfortable for himself, but also ingenious enough to make life more difficult for his rivals, and this included the ability to set something on fire against the will of its owner. Since history began, ships have been vulnerable to fire, and a vessel specifically designed to burn an enemy craft or maritime structure by colliding with it is known as a fireship. The rise and decline of the fireship as a weapon of war is the subject of this book.

Fire aboard ship engendered as much respect and fear in antiquity as it did in later times. Not for nothing were the cooking stoves of Roman ships isolated in the stern gallery and surrounded with bricks. Underwater archaeologists have discovered Roman wrecks that were destroyed by fire, and ancient historical writings abound with references to the use of fire as an anti-ship weapon.¹ An almost classic example of a fireship attack is found in an early report dating from August 413 BC. In the course of a skirmish between the Syracusans and the Athenians, the former loosed a fireship against some stranded Athenian ships. In this case it was an old merchant ship filled with pitch, brushwood and resinous timber, and the intention was that it would drift down with the wind on to the stationary Athenian vessels. However, the Greeks sent boats out to engage it and managed to throw it off course and even put out the fire.² This is a perfect instance of a fireship attack against a motionless target which failed to achieve its object, a pattern that would be repeated throughout history.

In antiquity warships were propelled by oars when in action, which made them independent of wind and tide, and hence often capable of evading a burning ship bearing down on them. For this reason the fireship remained a rather marginal factor in sea warfare at that time. Nevertheless, a great deal of ingenuity was displayed in using fire to destroy an enemy ship, as a few examples will demonstrate. Ramming an enemy galley and then setting it on fire required the attacker to come right up to his victim. The ram, the major ship-killing weapon of the time, had to be prevented from forcing its way so deeply into the hull of the adversary that it could not be disengaged quickly, before fire could spread back to the attacker. This could be accomplished by fitting a baulk of wood above the spur, but it was even better if the enemy could be set on fire from a distance. Besides flaming arrows and fiery darts, there was the fire-basket, as adopted by Admiral Pausistratos of Rhodes when he fought the Syrians in 190 BC at the battle of Panhormos. This was an iron container which swung from a chain at the end of a long pole and held burning charcoal or other inflammable material, which could be poured down on the deck of the enemy by manipulating the pole.³

In the Third Punic War (149–146 BC), the Carthaginians used fireships against the Roman fleet, and in the battle of Actium, Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) successfully deployed fireships off north-western Greece to destroy the anchored fleet of Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra.

This graffito from an Alexandrian tomb, dated to about 190–180 BC, shows a fire-basket fitted over the bow of a warship. Supposedly invented by Admiral Pausistratos of Rhodes, it consisted of an iron brazier suspended from a pole whose burning contents were poured down on the deck of an enemy ship after it had been rammed.


In late antiquity the Byzantines developed a new type of fire-weapon, the mysterious ‘Greek Fire’.⁴ Traditionally, this device is attributed to one Kallinikos, who worked for Emperor Constantine V (Copronymos) in AD 687. As first described by the Byzantine monk and chronicler Theophanes (752–c818) in his Chronographia, the emperor fitted out his warships with ‘firepots’ and ‘siphons’. The primary weapon of these swift galleys was the ram, but these Dromons, as they were known, were also equipped with a movable ‘siphon’ under the bow platform. According to the account this was a long wooden pipe enclosed in brass. Through this an inflammable mixture was pumped, ignited and sprayed out on the enemy, making it the earliest flamethrower.

One of the most impressive and influential naval weapons of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages was ‘Greek Fire’, first described by the Byzantine monk and chronicler Theophanes (752–c818). A heated inflammable mixture was forced through a pipe by an air-pump, making a primitive flamethrower. It was said that the fire could not be extinguished by water, but could be stifled by smothering. Originally, it was probably a mixture of crude oil, sulphur and resin, which was set afire at the nozzle with unslaked lime, but in the Middle Ages people discovered that if phosphorus was added it would burn without oxygen. Greek Fire fell into disuse only after the introduction of cannon at sea, which allowed ships to engage at a greater range. This illustration is from a twelfth-century manuscript in the National Library of Spain in Madrid, a copy of the Synopsis of Histories by the late eleventh-century Byzantine historian Ioannes Skylitzes.

There were probably longer siphons, the Greek word meaning both ‘pipe’ and ‘syringe’, and this apparatus may have resembled a fire-hose. It would have needed a force-pump, like that invented by Ctesbius in the third century BC, and a pressure-vessel or boiler of some kind.

It is said that the fire could not be extinguished with water, only with urine or vinegar, and since it could be choked by sand, we can conclude that it needed oxygen for combustion. However, its exact ingredients were a state secret, and today there are many theories about them. One idea is that the flame burned coal-dust or an early form of gunpowder.⁵ Against this is the fact that even if the Greeks knew about saltpetre, there was very little of it available.

Other scholars suspect that the key ingredients of Greek Fire might have been unslaked lime and naphtha, of which there were deposits near the Caspian Sea and in Georgia. When the unslaked lime made contact with water it released heat and ignited the fumes of the naphtha. As with the first idea, it seems doubtful that mixing these would have been very practical.

But what was the real secret of Greek Fire? As with the later fireships, one significant reason for its success was its psychological effect. The universal terror that this weapon evoked may have contributed to the fact that later, when quite different techniques and recipes were employed, it was still referred to as ‘Greek Fire’. But was there an original recipe that was lost for ever with the downfall of the Byzantine Empire? There may never be a definitive answer to this, but an analysis of all the old accounts of the use of Greek Fire produces some consistent observations.

One is that the weapon could be deployed only by people experienced in its use. During the attack the noise of powerful bellows was to be heard, and thick smoke was seen to rise from the deck. That would fit in with the idea that Greek Fire was not a secret mixture but a heated-up form of flammable naphtha, perhaps mixed with a distillate like turpentine.

A modern experimental reconstruction of Greek Fire by Professor John Haldon, using only the technology available at the time, produced a weapon capable of projecting a jet of fire up to fifteen metres and sustainable for several seconds at a time. It proved sufficient to destroy the wooden boat used as a target, and generated heat so intense that it would have killed the enemy crew or forced them to abandon ship the temperatures generated required the operators themselves to be well protected. Indeed, there is some evidence of flame-resistant materials in use at the time: according to an account by a Greek from Alexandria, the head of the Egyptian arsenals invented ‘something which was never before heard of. He took cotton and some mineral substances, he mixed them all together and smeared the ships of the fleet with the mixture, so that when the fire was thrown by the Greeks upon the ships, they did not burn. And this I saw with my own eyes: the ships were struck by Greek fire and did not burn but the fire was at once extinguished.’ There were also fireproof garments: one recipe specified dipping a cloak in a mixture of talc, alum, ammonium, hematite, gypsum, stale urine and egg whites. Such garments were used to protect both soldiers and horses (Greek Fire was also employed on land), though whether they were used at sea is unknown.


The material would be poured into a tightly sealed boiler and heated with a small, carefully shielded fire, which rendered the naphtha fluid less viscous and more readily ignitable. Then the pump came into action and increased the pressure in the boiler. A valve was then opened, and the hot oil rushed into the siphon and lit as it sprayed out. A long sinister tongue of flame reached out to the enemy ship, and the burning oil stuck to it. A similar principle was employed with the flamethrowers of the First and Second World Wars. The smoke that is mentioned in all the old reports came from a fire smouldering under the boiler, and the thunderous roar was caused by the bellows, which caused it to blaze up and raise the boiler temperature very rapidly. It also burned on the surface of the sea.

The most recent investigations into the possible nature of Greek Fire, carried out by Professor John Haldon and his associates Colin Hewes and Andrew Lacey, followed these broad principles. They used a spectacular modern replica of the Byzantine apparatus, using a force-pump submerged in a cistern of pre-heated naphtha and ignited by a wad of burning tow. Dr Haldon believes that the Byzantines, because of a geological accident and good timing, happened to have fairly ready access to the right kind of oil deposit, and were able to make use of it to construct their flame-throwing weapon. In the later twelfth century they lost control of the areas where these deposits were found, a development which coincided with their apparent loss of the ‘secret’ of Greek Fire.

Not surprisingly, the Byzantines installed the complicated apparatus only on stable ships that had sufficient deck space. They also knew that, if they wanted to deploy it successfully, experienced specialists were needed to control pressure, temperature and several other factors. Perhaps, therefore, the real secret of Greek Fire lay less in its special ingredients than in expertise in its use. A lot of experience was essential, and no doubt various practical tips and tricks were developed, which also were lost in the course of time.

Secret or not, there can be no doubting that in its day Greek Fire was an extremely effective weapon, the only real counter being an attack on the specialist (and probably irreplaceable) fire crew with missiles and arrows from the enemy ship. However, the lethal mixture could also be hurled from a distance by a catapult as a firepot, and in this case it could simply consist of burning oil. Since unslaked lime could not be extinguished by water, it may also have played a part, since it caused panic and fear among superstitious men.

Greek Fire was always regarded as inherently fiendish, and anyone who knew how to use it enjoyed a big tactical advantage: whole crews are known to have jumped overboard when it was deployed against them. It helped the soldiers of the Eastern Roman Empire defend their capital, Constantinople, against the Arab fleets in 674–8 and 717–18, but eventually Byzantium lost its monopoly of fire weapons.

The Muslim powers seem to have inherited some of the expertise if not the exact technology after conquering Byzantine territory, and they later successfully employed their own methods and recipes. During the Crusade of 1249 by Louis IX, for instance, the Crusaders were attacked after the taking of Damietta by an Egyptian army, who used a huge catapult to hurl barrel-sized firepots at them, said to contain Greek Fire. An eyewitness to this affair was the author and chronicler Jean de Joinville (c1224–1317), who in his History of Saint Louis produced a famous description of it: ‘Greek Fire came in containers as big as a barrel, and the fiery tail it emitted was about four paces in length. It made a noise like thunder, and it looked to me like a huge dragon flying in the air.’⁷ Despite its name, this was not the Greek Fire employed by the Byzantine navy.

Leonardo da Vinci’s proposal of 1488 to use a fire-raft to destroy enemy vessels in harbour. The method of ignition that he sketched is rather fanciful – at the moment of collision, a pole fitted with barbed iron points was meant to cause burning cinders to ignite some priming-powder, which in turn would cause brushwood to catch fire.


In the centuries that followed the composition of the mixture altered, notably with the incorporation of phosphorus, which engendered a fire that erupted everywhere simultaneously and was especially difficult to extinguish, since it was not dependent on the presence of oxygen in the air.⁸ This terror-inspiring weapon survived in the Mediterranean Sea area until the introduction of cannon and an era when ships fought at distances too great for the use of fire, which would flame out before it reached its target.

Greek Fire shot by siphons may have died out and been replaced by gunpowder and cannon, but it continued to haunt military thought. As late as the beginning of the fifteenth century, there is mention of flame-throwing in a treatise on sea warfare written for the edification of the young Emperor Charles V by a Burgundian nobleman at the court of the Emperor Maximilian, Filips van Kleef (of Cleves) 1456–1528:

Into an enemy ship you can hurl a sort of fire which cannot be extinguished, but this is an extremely dangerous weapon because it can well happen that you set your own vessel on fire, instead of that of the enemy. However, if you have at your disposal people who know how to use it, then it can be deployed. However, this can only be done before boarding, and if you are in lee of the enemy, so you can get out of the way if the enemy ship catches fire. Once you have boarded the enemy, fire cannot be used in any event.

The composition of Filips van Kleef’s inflammable material is only superficially comparable to the Greek Fire of antiquity. By his time there was access to saltpetre, with its ability to generate oxygen and its explosive nature, so it seems likely that his incendiary mixture consisted of saltpetre with resin, sulphur and other material.

Beside this offshoot of fire-raising at sea, there is the occasional account of the genuine fireship attack, as understood in this book – that is to say the firing and destruction of a vessel or other flammable structure by having a burning ship drift down upon it.

One such example was revealed by the wreck of a Viking ship discovered in 1953 on the site of the old Viking town of Haithabu, near Haddeby in the region of Schleswig-Flensburg, northern Germany. The find lay just outside a crescent-shaped wall which had surrounded the city. When in 1979 archaeologists began the excavation of the ship they called ‘Haithabu 1’, they found about four strakes of planking surviving, with everything above badly burned. On the basis of the evidence, it seems to have been a clinker-built vessel about 30m long and 2.7m wide, constructed of timber that may be dated to AD 985. It was a well-built sturdy ship, but it was old, and was used during a fireship attack on the town between AD 990 and 1010. It had been filled with hay and resin and allowed to drift against the wooden defensive wall of the town, where it had burned to the waterline before sinking, to be preserved in the mud.¹⁰

From the fourteenth century there is also the example of the two-day-long battle of Zierikzee at the entrance to the river Scheldt in the Netherlands. In August 1304 a Franco-Dutch fleet met one from Flanders and attacked the Flemish ships with fireships loaded with straw, pitch, resin and oil.

The idea of reaching and destroying the enemy with fire was of course a common tactic, but when planning its use a central question was how it could be employed to inflict the greatest possible damage. With the coming of the Renaissance, much abstract thought and invention was applied to many aspects of military science, including fire weapons. A fascinating example of this is offered by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who in 1488 designed a fireship in the form of a raft for use in a port against enemy shipping. Typical of Leonardo’s inventions, it had a sophisticated if rather impractical method of ignition. For a fire attack it was important that the fireship could securely grapple the enemy ship and then have the flames roar up very quickly, to prevent their being extinguished. Da Vinci designed an iron pointed device which would hook fast to the enemy hull, at which point the shock of collision would displace a pole fitted with wires with burning fuzes. When it fell, the burning rags came in contact with a layer of gunpowder that was spread out under a layer of brushwood and firewood, causing the raft to burst rapidly into flames.¹¹ Like Leonardo’s ‘helicopter’ and his armoured vehicles, this device was never given a practical trial in war.




Delancey is a lieutenant on the frigate HMS Medusa, which is just returning from Spain and bound for the dockyard at Chatham to be paid off. Delancey, with no interest and few friends in the service, anticipates a long period on half pay as he scrambles to find a new billet.

Spoilers follow.

As Delancey relaxes in a tavern with other navy officers the subject of the incredible victory of Captain Henry Trollope, commanding the converted East Indiaman HMS Glatton, over a Dutch squadron. It turns out that Glatton is expected shortly at Chatham for an overhaul.

When Glatton arrives, Delancey goes on board to satisfy his curiosity about the placement of the large caliber carronades on the lower gun deck. In the process, he meets Captain Trollope and provides a solution to a technical problem involving the tendency of the carronades’ muzzle flash to cause fires on the gun ports. This favorably impresses Trollope and he offers Delancey the position of second lieutenant on Glatton.

As Glatton is readied to sail to join Admiral Sir Adam Duncan’s North Sea Fleet, mutiny hits Spithead and quickly spreads to The Nore. Just outside Spithead, Glatton encounters a French privateer and takes it but it is so badly damaged that it sinks and Glatton has to go into Yarmouth to land the prisoners. There the crew learns the fleet is in a state of mutiny and soon after Glatton rejoins Duncan’s North Sea fleet, Glatton, too, mutinies and returns to Spithead.

The officers differ on how to handle the mutiny with Delancey arguing for a non-confrontational approach and the first lieutenant, Alexander Grant, arguing that they should forcefully put down the mutiny. Trollope agrees with Delancey, which earns Delancey the enmity of Grant.

When the mutiny at Spithead is resolved, Glatton sails to rejoin Admiral Duncan. As Glatton sails, both Delancey and Grant notice a suspicious gathering of seamen. Thinking new Grant confronts them and mortally wounds one of them, dispersing the rest. Much to the surprise of Grant, he is ordered to stand court martial for murder. The Admiralty feels that in the aftermath of suppressing the mutiny at The Nore that they can’t afford to give the sailors cause to complain that an officer can kill with impunity. Grant asks Delancey to defend him.

Far from being a pro forma court martial, Delancey finds the prosecutor seems determined to convict Grant in order to make a name for himself. Delancey ultimately wins the case, and the enmity of the prosecutor, by pointing out that the sailor had died ashore and thus Grant should be tried under civil authority.

Glatton sails for the blockade off Texel with Delancey as her first lieutenant as Grant is awaiting trial.

When the Dutch fleet sorties, Glatton takes part in the Battle of Camperdown and Delancey distinguishes himself. The victory brings despair for Delancey. Each of the first lieutenants in the fleet is promoted to commander. Trollope awards this promotion to Grant because he feels that Grant is a superlative officer, he will loose a critical promotion due to his absence, and the promotion will vindicate Grant in the eyes of other officers. Delancey confronts Trollope over the damage he sees to his reputation by being the only first lieutenant not promoted. Trollope explains his reasons and offers to retain Delancey as his first lieutenant and explain to the other officers why Delancey was not promoted. Delancey resigns in anger.

Trollope still has respect for Delancey’s abilities and uses his influence to see that Delancey is appointed lieutenant and commander into the fireship HMS Spitfire stationed at Cork.

At Cork, Delancey is assigned to work with a frigate commanded by a very imperious, aristocratic officer, Captain Kerr, who takes every opportunity to demean Delancey, his background, and his ship. Eventually Delancey earns a grudging respect from Kerr.

The main issue confronting the squadron at Cork is the possibility of a French invasion. To that end Spitfire and Kerr’ ship, HMS Vulture, patrol the west coast of Ireland. Eventually they are alerted that the French have landed at Killala. When they arrive they find the main French fleet has already landed its troops and departed, however a late arriving 74, Hercule, is grounded on a sandbar and must await high tide to float free.

Kerr favors sending Spitfire for help while he keeps Hercule under observation but Delancey points out that he runs a risk of being accused of inaction. Delancey proposes using Spitfire as it was designed, as a fireship, to destroy Hercule while it is aground.

Kerr reluctantly agrees and defers to Delancey’s plan. Though Delancey’s plan goes awry at almost every turn his preserverance results in the destruction of Hercule and the accolades of Kerr.

Tag Archives: Fireship

Touch and Go follows the career of C. Northcote Parkinson’s naval character Richard Delancey from late 1797 through the Peace of Amiens.

When we last enountered Richard Delancey, he was unemployed due to using his command, the fireship Spitfire, as it was intended to be used. His resourcefulness, however, won him the respect and patronage of the aristocratic Captain Ashley. This, in turn, led him to be made commander into the 18-gun sloop HMS Merlin.

The Hell-Burners of Calais

Under cover of darkness, and hidden in the midst of the English fleet, the fireships were prepared. Stripped of most of their equipment, they were then filled with combustible material of all kinds, including sails, spars, timber, and sacking, all smothered in pitch, tar and oil. More pitch and oil were applied to their masts and rigging. The guns were in many cases double-shotted, so that their explosions would add to enemy alarm. Manned by skeleton crews, equipped to light the network of slow match that covered each craft, every vessel towing a boat on which the men would escape, the fireships began to slip quietly towards the Armada.

The attackers were assisted by the freshening wind and a high spring tide, but the alarm was raised at about midnight, when two of the ships were apparently fired prematurely. ‘Two fires were seen kindled in the English fleet, which increased to eight and suddenly eight ships with all sail set and fair wind and tide, came straight toward our capitana and the rest of the fleet, all burning fiercely.’ They would reach the Spaniards in about fifteen to twenty minutes.

Medina Sidonia’s pinnaces and other small craft went into action, and managed to grapple and pull ashore two of the attackers. But, aided by the wind and tide, the remainder continued to bear down on the Armada, their doubleshotted guns exploding as they did so. Logically, they might have been expected to fail. Calais Roads were wide, giving plenty of space for manoeuvre and evasion, and it would soon have become apparent that the fireships were not in fact the dreaded ‘hell-burners’, were too few in number, and contained no explosives. However, against the odds, they succeeded.

According to one angry Spaniard:

Fortune so favoured the English, that there grew from this piece of industry just what they counted on, for they dislodged us with eight vessels, an exploit which with 130 they had not been able nor dared to attempt. When the morning came they had gained the weather-gauge of us, for we found ourselves scattered in every direction.’

It is usually claimed the spectacle of the approaching flames caused panic among the ships of the Armada, but the English seem to have exaggerated their effects. Though one Spanish eyewitness hints at the alarm that had seized some of the crews of the Armada:

The eight ships, filled with artificial fire and ordnance, advanced in line at a distance of a couple of pike’s lengths between them. But by God’s grace, before they arrived, while they were yet between the two fleets, one of them flared up with such fierceness and great noise as were frightful, and at this the ships of the Armada cut their cables at once, leaving their anchors, spreading their sails, and running out to sea and the whole eight fireships went drifting between the fleet and the shore with the most terrible flames that may be imagined.’

Most of the Spanish crews seem to have managed, despite the darkness and confusion, the difficult feat of setting sail and cutting their cables, the only apparent casualty being the San Lorenzo, flagship of the galleasses, which in the confusion collided with another galleass, the Girona, then with de Leiva’s Rata Encoronada, damaging her rudder.

With the fireships now burning themselves out harmlessly on the shore, Medina Sidonia’s plan had been for the Armada to re-form, recover its anchors and resume its previous moorings. That this did not happen was the result of several factors. The darkness, the wind, the strong currents, and the spring tide carrying them towards the North Sea made it virtually impossible for the Armada to return as planned. It also seems highly likely that some of those commanders who had all along been opposed to the halt at Calais made little effort to obey the duke’s orders.

The outcome was a major – and perhaps unexpected – English success. Unable, owing to the strong spring tide, to return to their original anchorage and pick up what were in most cases their best anchors, the Spanish ships found that their remaining ones were unable to grip in a seabed that provided poor holding, and they drifted north-east, in the direction of Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders. The Armada had not only lost the tight formation it had maintained for most of the past week, but it had now irretrievably lost any chance of linking up with Parma and the Army of Flanders. As dawn would reveal, Medina Sidonia’s situation was increasingly desperate.

And yet Medina Sidonia was still recovering from the panic caused by the appearance of fireships. His subsequent report reveals a fear of ‘fire machines’ and exploding mines:

At midnight two fires were perceived on the English fleet, and these two gradually increased to eight. They were eight vessels with sails set, which were drifting with the current directly towards our flagship and the rest of the Armada, all of them burning with great fury. When the duke saw them approaching, and that our men had not diverted them, he, fearing that they might contain fire machines or mines, ordered the flagship to let go the cables, the rest of the Armada receiving similar orders, with an intimation that when the fires had passed they were to return to the same positions again. The leading galleass, in trying to avoid a ship, ran foul of the San Juan de Sicilia, and became so crippled that she was obliged to drift ashore. The current was so strong that although the flagship, and some of the vessels near her, came to anchor and fired off a signal gun, the other ships of the Armada did not perceive it, and were carried by the current towards Dunkirk.’

Meanwhile, from the deck of his ship, Vanguard, Vice Admiral Sir William Wynter, their original proposer, keenly watched the effects of the fireships:

about twelve of the clock that night six ships were brought and prepared with a saker shot, and going in a front, having the wind and tide with them, and their ordnance being charged, were fired and the men that were the executers, so soon as the fire was made, they did abandon the ships, and entered into five boats that were appointed for the saving of them. This matter did put such terror among the Spanish army that they were fain to let slip their cables and anchors and did work, as it did appear, great mischief among them by reason of the suddenness of it. We might perceive that there were two great fires more than ours, and far greater and huger than any of our vessels that we fired could make.’

But not all of the English were unreservedly delighted at the success of the fireships. Captain Henry Whyte, whose ship the Bark Talbot, was one of those employed, was rather more concerned about compensation:

There [at Calais] it was resolved to put them from their anchor, and ships were allotted to the fire to perform the enterprise among the rest, the ship I had in charge, the Bark Talbot, was one so that now I rest like one that had his house burnt, and one of these days I must come to your honour for permission to go a-begging.’

This history of the fireship explains how the device became increasingly sophisticated, with purpose-built fireworks becoming their weapon of choice. From the earliest days until their decline in the early nineteenth century. Illustrated. 256 pages