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  • Naval history is the area of military history concerning war at sea. The focus is on direct combat between ships at sea rather than the use of ships to transport armies or military supplies, although frequently naval strategy hinges on the need to protect transport shipping. 

    Naval history is of special interest not only because of the value of learning how societies of the past dealt with the double challenge of human enemies and the implacable sea, but also because ships were the first technology to enable a global civilization. In the days before radio, naval officers at remote locations were frequently called upon to singlehandedly decide the fates of their nations. 

    Oarsmen of the Middle Sea 

    The first dateable recorded sea battle occurred about 1210 BC; Suppiluliumus II, king of the Hittites, defeated a fleet from Cyprus, and bur ed their ships at sea. 

    Assyrian reliefs from the 700s BC show Phoenician fighting ships, with two levels of oars, fighting men on a sort of bridge or deck above the oarsmen, and some sort of ram protruding from the bow. No written mention of strategy or tactics seems to have survived. 

    The Greeks of Homer just used their ships as transport for land armies, but in 664 BC there is a mention of a battle at sea between Corinth and its colony city Corcyra. 

    The Persian Wars were the first to feature large-scale naval operations, not just sophisticated fleet engagements with dozens of triremes on each side, but combined land-sea operations. It seems unlikely that all this was the product of a single mind or even of a generation; most likely the period of evolution and experimentation was simply not recorded by history. 

    After some initial battles while subjugating the Greeks of the Ionian coast, the Persians determined to invade Greece proper. Themistocles of Athens estimated that the Greeks would be outnumbered by the Persians on land, but that Athens could protect itself by building a fleet (the famous "wooden walls"), using the profits of the silver mines at Laurium to finance them. 

    The first Persian campaign, in 492 BC, was aborted because the fleet was lost in a storm, but the second, in 490 BC, captured islands in the Aegean Sea before landing on the mainland near Marathon. Attacks by the Greek armies repulsed these. 

    The third Persian campaign, under Xerxes I of Persia ten years later (480 BC), followed the pattern of the first in marching the army via the Hellespont while the fleet paralleled them offshore. Near Cape Artemisium, in the narrow channel between the mainland and Euboea, the Greek fleet held off multiple assaults by the Persians, the Persians breaking through a first line, but then being flanked by the second line of ships. But the defeat on land at Thermopylae forced a Greek withdrawal, and Athens evacuated its population to nearby Salamis Island. 

    The ensuing Battle of Salamis was one of the decisive engagements of history. Themistocles trapped the Persians in a channel too narrow for them to bring their greater numbers to bear, and attacked them vigorously, in the end causing the loss of 200 Persian ships vs 40 Greek. At the end, Xerxes still had a fleet stronger than the Greeks, but withdrew anyway, and after losing at Plataea in the following year, returns to Asia Minor, leaving the Greeks their freedom. Nevertheless, the Athenians and Spartans attack and burn the laid-up Persian fleet at Mycale, and free many of the Ionian towns. 

    During the next fifty years, the Greeks command the Aegean, but not harmoniously, and after several minor wars about which we know little, in 431 BC, tensions exploded into the Peloponnesian War between Athens' Delian League and the Spartan Peloponnesian. Naval strategy was critical; Athens walled itself off from the rest of Greece, leaving only the port at Piraeus open, and trusting in its navy to keep supplies flowing while the Spartan army besieged it. This strategy worked, although the close quarters likely contributed to the plague that killed many Athenians in 429 BC. 

    There were a number of sea battles; at Rhium, Naupactus, Pylos, Syracuse, Cynossema, Cyzicus, Notium. But the end came for Athens in 405 BC at Aegospotami in the Hellespont, where the Athenians had drawn up their fleet on the beach, and were there surprised by the Spartan fleet, who landed and burned all the ships. Athens surrendered to Sparta in the following year. 

    Navies next played a major role in the complicated wars of the successors of Alexander the Great. (need more?)

    Rome was never much of a seafaring nation, but it had to learn, and learn fast, in the Punic Wars with Carthage, and developed the the technique of grappling and boarding enemy ships with soldiers. Romans ships and fleets grew gradually as Rome found itself involved in more and more Mediterranean politics; by the time of the Roman Civil War and the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, hundreds of ships were involved, many of them quinqueremes mounting catapults and fighting towers. The Roman Empire however had little use for navies beyond periodic piracy suppression. 

    Dark and Middle Ages 

    The barbarian invasions of the 4th century and later mostly occurred by land, but there are mentions of a Vandal fleet fighting with the Romans, and a defeat of an Ostrogothic fleet at Sena Gallica in the Adriatic Sea. 

    In the 7th century Arab fleets begin to make an appearance, raiding Sicily in 652, and defeating the Byzantines in 655. Constantinople is saved in 678 by the invention of Greek fire, an early form of flamethrower that is devastating to the ships in the besieging fleet. This was just the first of many encounters. 

    In the 8th century the Norsemen begin to make an appearance, although their usual style is to appear quickly, plunder, and disappear, preferably undefended locations. King Alfred the Great of England built a fleet and was able to beat off the Danes. 

    As Arab power in the Mediterranean began to wane, the Italian trading towns of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice stepped in to seize the opportunity, setting up commercial networks and building navies to protect them. At first the navies fought with the Arabs (off Bari in 1004, at Messina in [[1005]), but then they found themselves contending with Normans moving into Sicily, and finally with each other. The Genoese and Venetians fought four naval wars, in 1253-1284, 1293-1299, 1350-1355, and 1378-1371. The last ended with a decisive victory for Venice, which gave them almost a century to enjoy Mediterranean trade domination before other European countries started exploring to the south and west. 

    In the north of Europe, the near-continuous conflict between England and France rarely entails naval activity more sophisticated than carrying knights across the English Channel, and perhaps trying to attack the transports. The Battle of Dover in 1217, between a French fleet of 80 ships under Eustace the Monk and an English fleet of 40 under Hubert de Burgh, is notable is the first recorded battle using sailing ship tactics. 

    Sails and Empire 

    Technologywise, the late Middle Ages was important as the time of the development of the cogs and caravels, ships capable of surviving the tough conditions of the open ocean, with enough backup systems and crew expertise to make long voyages routine. In addition, they grew from 100 tons to 300 tons displacement, enough to carry cannons as armament and still have space left over for profitable cargo. One of the largest ships of the time, the Great Harry displaced over 1,500 tons. 

    The voyages of discovery were fundamentally commercial rather than military in nature, although the line was sometimes blurry in that a country's ruler was not above funding exploration for personal profit, nor was it a problem to use military power to enhance that profit. Later the lines gradually separated, in that the ruler's motivation in using the navy was to protect private enterprise so that they could pay more taxes. 

    The first naval action in defense of the new colonies was just ten years after Vasco da Gama's epochal landing in India. In March 1508, a combined Gujerati/Egyptian force surprised a Portuguese squadron at Dabul, and only two Portuguese ships escape. In the following February, the Portuguese viceroy destroys the allied fleet at Diu, thus confirming Portuguese domination of the Indian Ocean. 

    In 1582, the Battle of Punta Delgada in the Azores, in which a Spanish fleet defeated a French force, thus suppressing a revolt in the islands, was the first battle fought in mid-Atlantic. 

    In 1588, Philip V of Spain sent his Spanish Armada to subdue Elizabeth I of England, but her admiral Sir Francis Drake defeated and scattered the force, beginning the rise to prominence of the Royal Navy. 

    In the 17th century competition between English and Dutch commercial fleets came to a head in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the first wars to be conducted entirely at sea. 

    The 18th century developed into a period of seemingly continuous world wars, each larger than the last. At sea the British and French were bitter rivals; the French aided the fledgling United States in the American Revolution, but their strategic purpose was to capture territory in India and the West Indies. 

    Even the change of government due to the French Revolution seemed to intensify the rivalry rather than diminish it, and the Napoleonic Wars included a series of legendary naval battles, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, by which Admiral Horatio Nelson broke the power of the French and Spanish fleets, but lost his own life in so doing. 

    From Wood to Steel 

    Trafalgar ushered in the Pax Britannica of the 19th century, marked by general peacce in the world's oceans, under the ensigns of the Royal Navy. But the period was one of intensive experimentation with new technology; steam power for ships appeared in the 1810s, improved metallurgy and machining technique produced larger and deadlier guns, and the development of explosive shells, capable of demolishing a wooden ship at a single blow, in turn required the addition of iron armor. 

    The famous battle of the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor in the American Civil War was the duel of ironclads that symbolized the changing times. 

    As the century came to a close, the familiar modern battleship began to emerge; a steel-armored ship, entirely dependent on steam, and sporting a number of large shell guns mounted in turrets arranged along the centerline of the main deck. The ultimate design was reached in 1906 with the Dreadnought which entirely dispensed with smaller guns, her main guns being sufficient to sink any existing ship of the time. 

    The Russo-Japanese War and particularly the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 was the first test of the new concepts, resulting a stunning Japanese victory and the destruction of dozens of Russian ships. 

    World War I pitted the old Royal Navy against the new navy of Imperial Germany, culminating in the 1916 Battle of Jutland. 

    After the war, many nations agreed to the Washington Naval Treaty and scrapped many of their battleships and cruiser while still in the shipyards, but the growing tensions of the 1930s restarted the building programs, with even larger ships than before; the Yamato, largest battleship ever, displaced 72,000 tons, and mounted 18-inch diameter guns. 

    Above and Below the Sea 

    December 7, 1941 was a pivotal point, not only because it brought the United States into World War II, but also because it signalled the end of the era of the battleship, and the new importance of aircraft and their transportation, the aircraft carrier. During the Pacific War, battleships and cruisers spent most of their time bombarding land positions, while the carriers were the stars of the key Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway, Battle of the Philippine Sea, and the climactic Battle of Leyte Gulf, largest naval battle in history. 

    Air power remained key to navies throughout the 20th century, moving to jets launched from ever-larger carriers, and augmented by cruisers armed with guided missiles and cruise missiles. 

    Just as important was the development of submarines to travel underneath the sea, at first for short dives, then later to be able to spend weeks or months underwater powered by a nuclear reactor. In both World Wars, submarines (U-boats in Germany) primarily exerted their power by sinking merchant ships using torpedoes, as well as other warships. In the 1950s the Cold War inspired the development of ballistic missile submarines, each one loaded with dozens of nuclear-armed missiles and with orders to launch them from sea should the other nation attack. 

    The 21st Century 

    In the 21st century, navies continue their tradition of technological experimentation and power projection into the far corners of the world.


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