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
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
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
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
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 [),
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
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
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.