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.
At 8am on the 3rd August 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera on the voyage that would take him to the Americas. While Columbus captained the Santa María, Palos natives commonly referred to as the Pinzón brothers captained the Pinta and the Santa Clara which is better known by its nickname the Niña. A third Pinzón brother, was the master of the Pinta.
None of the ships belonged to Columbus himself and, despite the voyage officially being supported by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, they forced the inhabitants of the port to contribute towards the costs associated with supplying and equipping them. In the case of the Pinta, its owners had even been forced to send the ship on the voyage against their wishes, leading to suspicions of sabotage when the rudder broke after just three days at sea.
The ships sailed first to the Canary Islands, which they reached after six days. Here they repaired the rudder of the Pinta and restocked with provisions for the Atlantic crossing, which they began on the 6th September from the port of San Sebastián de la Gomera.
However, it is Palos de la Frontera that holds the real title as the starting point of Columbus’ transatlantic voyage. The town also played a significant role in the later Christianisation of the New World since it continued to be a departure point for later westward voyages and was the location of the Franciscan Rábida Monastery that sent some of the first missionaries to the Americas.
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.
On the 13th May 1787, the eleven ships of the “First Fleet” set sail under Captain Arthur Phillip from Portsmouth, England, to establish a penal colony in Australia. As well as over 1,000 convicts who had been sentenced to transportation, the ships also carried officers, crew, marines and their families.
It took 252 days for the six convict ships, three store ships, and two Royal Navy escort ships to complete the journey. The route involved the ships sailing first from Portsmouth to Tenerife, and then to Rio de Janeiro where they restocked their provisions and took livestock on board to establish the new settlement. They then sailed via Cape Town to Australia. This route ensured optimal usage of the prevailing winds to speed up the journey.
Despite the lengthy voyage and numerous dangers en route, the entire fleet of eleven ships arrived safely in Botany Bay. Going ashore to investigate Captain Cook’s proposed site for the penal colony, Captain Phillip quickly chose to instead find a different location because the soil was poor quality and there was limited access to fresh water. After further exploration, 6 days later he moved the fleet a few kilometres north to Sydney Cove, and the British flag was raised. 48 people had died on route, but over 1,400 people survived to establish the first European outpost in Australia on the 26th January 1788, the date which still marks Australia Day.
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.
On the 19th April 1770, the British explorer Captain James Cook first caught sight of Australia. Or at least that’s what the log of HMS Endeavour said. The problem was, Cook and his crew had been at sea for nearly 2 years, having sailed west from Britain across the Atlantic to South America, and then onwards across the southern Pacific. By the time they arrived on the south-east coast of Australia, they had – in a calendar – skipped a day. According to some sources, therefore, Cook arrived in Australia on April 20th.
Irrespective of whether we use the ship’s log or the modern calendar to record the date, the voyage of the Endeavour was significant for being the first European voyage to reach the east coast of Australia. The Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon was the first to chart the west coast over 100 years previously.
After sighting land, it was another ten days before Cook and his crew actually stepped ashore. The first sighting had been of Point Hicks, but it wasn’t until the ship had travelled some distance along the coast to what is now known as Botany Bay that Cook and his crew felt they had found a suitable mooring.
Botany Bay is now a major transportation hub, since it is home to Sydney’s cargo seaport and two runways of Sydney airport. However, for many years the name Botany Bay conjured up different images of transportation since Botany Bay had been the first proposed site for a British penal colony.
On the 5th April 1621, the Mayflower – the boat that carried the Pilgrim fathers to America – returned to England from the settlement at Plymouth. The story of the Mayflower usually focuses on its journey to New England, with the ship itself being a central character in the story of European settlers in North America. However, the ship itself was nothing special.
By 1620 the Mayflower was already reaching the end of its working life. It had been a cargo ship, regularly making short journeys to France in order to load up with wine and other goods to sell in England. The ship’s voyage to the New World was in many ways just a delivery contract between the Pilgrims and the ship’s master, Christopher Jones. With the Pilgrims safely ashore in America, Jones and his crew were free to return to England.
However, the bitter winter and outbreak of disease meant that construction of a settlement on land was not completed until March 1621. With many of the ship’s crew struck down by disease, Jones was forced to stay until those of his crew who survived were fit enough for the return journey at the start of April.
After its return, Jones used the Mayflower for some other trading runs to France, but he died just a year later. By 1624 the ship had also reached the end of its life. Legend says that it was sold and broken up for scrap, with the beams used to construct a barn in the county of Buckinghamshire.
The raid by the Royal Navy and British Commandos was overseen by Combined Operations Headquarters. Their task was to disable the only dry dock on the Atlantic seaboard that was big enough to accommodate the terrifying German battleship Tirpitz. This was vital to British attempts to weaken the German presence in the Atlantic. If the St Nazaire facility could be put out of action, the Germans would have to send Tirpitz home for any repairs and would ultimately keep the dangerous ship out of the Atlantic.
265 commandos and 346 Royal Navy personnel arrived at the French docks in a convoy led by the old British destroyer HMS Campbeltown in the early hours of 28 March. The convoy was spotted before reaching the enormous gates of the dry dock but, despite of intense fire from the German batteries on the shore, Campeltown ploughed into the dock gates at 1.34am. Commandos surged ashore to destroy key dock facilities with explosives while assault teams tried to draw away German defenders. Meanwhile, time fuses attached to explosives hidden in the bow of Campbeltown were set.
With almost all the British evacuation ships destroyed or unable to reach the docks, it became clear that the Commandos left on shore would be unable to leave by sea. They consequently fought on until they ran out of ammunition, after which all but five were taken prisoner. At around noon the explosives inside Campbeltown detonated, destroying the dry dock.
Only 228 men returned to England. 169 had been killed and 205 became prisoners of war, but the raid itself was a success as the dock remained inoperative for the rest of the war.
Exxon Valdez had only recently departed the Valdez Marine Terminal when the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, left Third Mate Gregory Cousins in charge of steering the vessel while he retired to his quarters. Having moved outside the usual shipping lanes to avoid small icebergs that had been sighted earlier, the ship struck the reef at 12:04am.
Described by John Muir as a ‘bright and spacious wonderland’, Prince William Sound is one of the world’s most remote locations. This made the clean-up operation both challenging and expensive. Exxon and the Alyeska Pipeline Company were later criticised for their response to the spill, which initially used chemical dispersants on the oil. They later attempted a mechanical clean-up but, despite their attempts to control the situation, the oil eventually spread over more than 1,000 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of water.
High pressure hot water that was sprayed over the beaches to displace the oil was later found to have destroyed organisms in the environment. These not only formed a vital part of the food chain but could also help to biodegrade the oil.
Millions of fish and hundreds of thousands of seabirds died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, while hundreds of otters and seals – as well as more than a dozen orcas – also perished as a result of the oil spill.
In total, only 10% of the lost oil was completely retrieved. This means that, even decades after the spill, hundreds of miles of Alaskan beaches are still polluted with crude oil lying just below the sandy surface.