On the 7th August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by the United States Congress. The joint resolution granted powers to President Lyndon B. Johnson to use military force to assist countries in Southeast Asia facing so-called “communist aggression”. Many critics of the war condemned Congress for granting Johnson a “blank cheque” to escalate American military involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. At the time, however, it passed unanimously through the House of Representatives and only two Senators opposed the resolution.
The Resolution was a response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that had taken place just a few days earlier, in which the North Vietnamese Navy was blamed for attacking US ships on two separate occasions. While it is accepted that the USS Maddox did exchange fire with three enemy torpedo boats on the 2nd August, the claim that it was attacked again on the 4th August is now known to be false.
Even at the time it was acknowledged that the second attack may not have actually happened. Captain John J. Herrick, the commander of the Maddox, had spent four hours firing at enemy ships picked up on radar. However, he sent a message just a few hours later saying that no enemy boats had actually been sighted and so the radar may have malfunctioned. However, the President was not informed of this before going on television to announce that US ships had been attacked. Johnson’s desire to retaliate led to the Resolution, and this in turn led to the USA escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War.
Napoleon Bonaparte voluntarily surrendered to British Captain Maitland on board the Royal Navy ship HMS Bellerophon.
Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba in March 1815 heralded the start of the Hundred Days which saw Napoleon seek to re-establish his position as Emperor of the French. On 18 June his army was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by British and Prussian armies of the Seventh Coalition, prompting Napoleon to abdicate two days later.
Having been warned to leave Paris, Napoleon moved first to the Château de Malmaison and then to the southwestern port of Rochefort from where he hoped to escape to the United States. By this time, however, British Royal Navy warships had begun a blockade of French ports to prevent Napoleon leaving. Consequently unable to either remain in France, or flee across the Atlantic, Napoleon was forced to surrender to the British.
On 14 July Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon was informed that Napoleon would surrender on board his ship the next day. The former Emperor duly boarded the brig Épervier on the morning of 15 July and made his way to the Bellerophon. In order to avoid Napoleon being received by Vice-Admiral Henry Hotham on board HMS Superb, which was also off the coast of Rochefort, Maitland sent a barge to meet him.
Shortly before 7am Napoleon and his General Henri Gatien Bertrand arrived at the Bellerophon and announced that ‘I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and your laws.’ He was subsequently taken to England, from where he was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. He died there on 5 May 1821.
British naval ships attacked the French Navy at Mers-el-Kébir in Algeria during the Second World War.
On 22 June 1940 France and Nazi Germany signed the Second Armistice at Compiègne. This signalled the end of the Battle of France, and Britain was concerned that the significant naval force of the Marine Nationale would now pass to the pro-Nazi Vichy government. If these ships were used by the Axis powers, they would secure a significant advantage in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Winston Churchill received reassurances from Admiral François Darlan, commander of the French Navy, that the ships would remain under French control. However, Churchill and the War Cabinet were unwilling to risk the possibility that they might change hands.
Having decided that it was necessary to neutralise the French fleet, Operation Catapult was launched on 3 July. French ships in British ports were captured, while those at Mers-el-Kébir were offered an ultimatum by Force H under the command of Admiral Sir James Somerville. If the French didn’t surrender their ships or move them away from the reach of the Axis, they would be sunk.
Negotiations continued for much of the day, but at 5:54pm Churchill ordered the British ships to open fire in the first Anglo-French naval exchange since the Napoleonic Wars. The French were anchored in a narrow harbour that made them an easy target for the British guns. 1,300 French sailors were killed in just a few minutes, while one battleship was sunk with five more seriously damaged.
Churchill later recalled the ‘hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned’ but, in the context of the war, the attack at Mers-el-Kébir proved to the world that Britain was determined to keep fighting.
The German gunboat SMS Panther was sent to the Moroccan port of Agadir, sparking the Second Moroccan Crisis.
France had emerged from the First Moroccan Crisis of 1906 in a much stronger position than neighbouring Germany, whose Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to develop economic and commercial interests in the country. The two countries formalised their positions in an agreement two years later but, by 1911, the domestic situation in Morocco had declined. In early 1911 the Sultan, Abdelhafid, faced an uprising by native tribes who also attacked French forces stationed in the country.
In response 20,000 French and colonial troops were sent to the city of Fez under the pretext of protecting European residents and their property. This was interpreted by some in Germany as an attempt to extend French control over Morocco, and in response the gunboat SMS Panther was dispatched to the port of Agadir.
While France was unwilling to take military action, the arrival of the German navy raised some concerns in Britain that Germany might seek to establish a naval base. An article in “The Times” newspaper on 20 July further raised public tensions, while David Lloyd George’s Mansion House speech the following day stated that Britain would not tolerate German aggression in Africa.
In the midst of such a hostile atmosphere the situation was eventually resolved through negotiations between the German and French governments. In return for recognising France’s position in Morocco, Germany received territory in the Congo. However, the damage that the naval dimension of the crisis caused to German relations with Britain was irreparable and only deepened the mistrust that was to contribute to the outbreak of the First World War.
The Pig War border confrontation began when Lyman Cutlar shot a British-owned pig on San Juan Island.
The archipelago of which San Juan Island is part lies between Washington State on the United States mainland and Vancouver, in what was then British North America. The 1846 Oregon Treaty had established a boundary along the 49th parallel along ‘the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island’. The problem was that San Juan Island itself lies in the middle of the channel, leading both countries to claim sovereignty over it.
By 1859 the British Hudson’s Bay Company had established a sheep ranch on the island. A small number of American settlers had also arrived under the terms of the Donation Land Claim Act, even though the ownership of the land was disputed.
On 15 June 1859 a free-roaming black pig owned by the Hudson Bay employee Charles Griffin began rooting through American settler Lyman Cutlar’s potato patch. Cutlar shot the pig. Although the exact details of what happened next are unclear, a number of sources claim that Cutlar offered $10 compensation while Griffin demanded $100. Whatever the truth, Griffin reported Cutlar to the British authorities who threatened to arrest him. In response the US General William S. Harney sent 66 soldiers from the 9th Infantry, which the British governor responded to by sending three British warships.
By 10 August a force of 461 Americans and five British ships with over 2,000 men were caught in a tense standoff. However, the arrival of British Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes heralded a de-escalation of tensions after he refused to ‘involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.’ An international commission eventually ruled in 1872 that America should control the island.
Operation Dynamo, better known as the evacuation of Dunkirk, began.
Applauded by the British press as a heroic and miraculous rescue, Operation Dynamo saw an armada under the command of the Royal Navy successfully evacuate over 338,000 Allied troops from the beaches around the French port of Dunkirk.
The German army had invaded France on 10 May, and within just two weeks had cut off and surrounded a combined force of British, French and Belgian troops. Referred to by the recently-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as ‘a colossal military disaster’ the only hope was to retreat to the port of Dunkirk and evacuate as many soldiers as possible.
Operation Dynamo was overseen by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay who reputedly worked in a room within the cliffs of Dover that once housed an electrical dynamo, though there is no reliable evidence for this claim. The order to begin the operation was received at 18:57 on 26 May, less than a week after planning began.
The operation is famous for the flotilla of ‘little ships’ that sailed from Britain to assist the evacuation. Most of these were used to ferry soldiers from the beaches to the large navy ships that would sail across the Channel, although the majority of soldiers boarded ships directly from the stone and concrete mole that protected the harbour.
The evacuation took place amidst ferocious attacks from German aircraft and artillery. In response the Royal Air Force sent all available aircraft to protect the operation. Churchill later praised the fact that hundreds of thousands of soldiers had been evacuated from Dunkirk, but in a speech on 4 June needed to warn the public that ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’
The Battle of the Coral Sea, the first naval battle in which the participating ships never came in sight of each other, ended.
The Coral Sea is situated off the northeast coast of Australia. Following Japan’s entry into the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Navy sought to establish perimeter defences in the region to protect the Japanese empire and isolate Australia and New Zealand from their ally the United States.
Japanese forces launched Operation MO, in which they planned to seize Port Moresby in New Guinea and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, on 3 May 1942. However, the Allies had intercepted messages about the impending attack and launched a series of surprise airstrikes against the Japanese from the U.S. fleet carrier Yorktown.
The Allied attack failed to stop the Japanese landings on Tulagi, but caused significant damage to the fleet that reduced its effectiveness in the second stage of the plan. Clearly aware of the presence of enemy aircraft carriers in the area, the Japanese consequently sought to locate and destroy the allied naval forces.
On the morning of 7 May, Japanese carrier-based planes located and sank a U.S. destroyer and an oiler while American planes sank the light Japanese carrier Shōhō and a cruiser. The following day Japanese aircraft damaged the U.S. carriers Yorktown and Lexington, which was later scuttled. Meanwhile the Japanese carrier Shōkaku was heavily damaged and had to withdraw, while Zuikaku suffered large aircraft losses that excluded it from the Battle of Midway the following month. Consequently while Japan experienced a tactical victory in terms of the number of ships sunk, the Allies gained a strategic advantage as Japan was forced to abandon Operation MO.
23-year old Acting Lieutenant Fletcher Christian led a mutiny on the Royal Navy vessel HMS Bounty.
Bounty had departed England in late 1787 to collect and transport saplings of the breadfruit tree from Tahiti to various British colonies in the West Indies as a cheap source of food for slaves on the plantations. The ship, a three-masted cutter, was commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh who had previously accompanied Captain James Cook on his third and final voyage.
Bounty arrived in Tahiti on 26 October 1788, but the outward voyage had seen relations between Bligh and his crew gradually deteriorate. Having arrived at their destination many crewmen began relationships with the local women, while Bligh began to impose increasingly harsh discipline that only served to worsen relations between him and his men.
The ship and her crew departed Tahiti on 5 April 1789 and, according to later testimonies, it was Bligh’s increasingly angry outbursts that led to the mutiny. Christian was a particular target and by the evening of 27 April he was considering desertion. Instead, after encouragement from other members of the crew, he led a mutiny. Bligh was frogmarched to the upper deck at musket point shortly after 5am on 28 April. Together with 18 crewmen who refused to join the mutineers, Bligh was forced onto an overloaded launch with enough food and water to last around five days.
Some of the mutineers were returned to Tahiti while Christian and the others established a settlement on the remote Pitcairn Island. Meanwhile Bligh’s crew sailed their open boat approximately 4,000 miles to the Dutch settlement of Coupang in Timor where the survivors boarded a ship to England, arriving on 14 March 1790.
The British pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, was killed during a battle with British sailors under the command of Lieutenant Robert Maynard.
Details of Teach’s early life are so sparse that historians are not even certain of his real name. He only begins to reliably appear in the historical record in September 1717 when he was described in a report by an anti-piracy patrol off the coast of North Carolina as being in charge of “a sloop of 6 gunns [sic] and about 70 men.” By the end of November 1717, Teach had captured the French slave ship La Concorde, which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He cruised the Caribbean throughout the winter, during which time the captain of a raided ship gave the first physical description of the pirate that included reference to his “very black beard which he wore very long.”
Teach was at the height of his power when he lost Queen Anne’s Revenge after she ran aground on a sandbar. He later sailed to Bath, the capital of North Carolina, to receive a royal pardon that had been offered to any pirate who surrendered on or before 5 September 1718. He and his crew received the pardon from Governor Charles Eden in June, but returned to piracy soon afterwards.
News of this soon reached the Governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, who personally financed an operation to capture Teach. Lieutenant Robert Maynard was put in charge, and he attacked the pirates at Ocracoke Island on 22 November 1718.
Having hidden many of his men below decks in anticipation of being boarded by Teach’s crew, Maynard was able to take the pirates by surprise. Amidst vicious fighting, Teach is said to have taken 5 musket balls and as many as twenty sword cuts before he died. His head was later severed and hung from the bowsprit of Maynard’s ship.
The first recorded naval battle featuring artillery took place in the first naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War.
The Battle of Arnemuiden saw five slow but stable single-masted English cogs face 48 galleys of The Grand Army of the Sea. This huge French fleet had already sacked English coastal towns such as Portsmouth and Southampton in an attempt to cripple the English economy and stop Edward III’s attempts to gain the French crown.
Edward relied on income from the valuable wool trade to ensure he could pay for his army and maintain the support of his allies on the continent. The five ships that sailed from England to the Flanders port of Arnemuiden were unloading this cargo when they were overwhelmed by the French fleet.
Realising that their best chance of avoiding capture was to put to sea again, the ships quickly left their moorings. Under the command of John Kingston on board the Christopher, the English then attempted to fight off the French. Four of the five ships were forced to adopt the established tactic of attempting to ram the sides of the opposing ships, but the Christopher was able to employ a new type of offensive: artillery.
The ship was equipped with three canons and one handgun and, against overwhelming numbers, the crew were able to use these to hold off the enemy for much of the day. However, Kingston was eventually forced to surrender. The French admirals Hugues Quiéret and Nicolas Béhuchet captured the five ships with their valuable cargo and executed the crews.
The French navy went on to dominate the Channel for almost two years before its decisive defeat at the Battle of Sluys on 24 June 1340 during which the English were able to recapture the Christopher.