The Royal Navy and the Fighting Instructions

The Battle of Leghorn, 4 March 1653 (Willem van Diest, mid-17th Century)
The Battle of Leghorn, 4 March 1653 (Willem van Diest, mid-17th Century)

European fleet commanders learned during the first Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54) that once close combat began between ships, effective control of large numbers of fighting vessels was nearly impossible. The Royal Fighting Instructions were intended to provide guidance to British admiralty and their fighting ships, effectively creating a command and control doctrine. With roots stretching back to the 16th Century, the overall objective of the instructions were to enable the “better ordering and managing the fleet in fighting.”[1] While the earliest forms of the Instructions (such as the Commonwealth Orders, 1648) scarcely provide anything more than broad guidance for a limited number of scenarios, we see some evolution as British Naval authorities attempted to standardize guidance for increasingly complex engagements over subsequent decades.

All of the Fighting Instructions provide guidance on actions to take upon encountering an unknown fleet. Initial contact directives evolve somewhat into a more orderly process over the years. In 1653, general guidance is given that “they” are to approach the fleet and determine size and intent. Apparently these early instructions did not specify whether one, some, or all of the fleet would be involved in this action. Subsequent revisions specify “two frigates” will be responsible for this task, and ultimately that “one frigate appointed out of each squadron” were responsible.[2] Once the Admiral ordered an attack, the Instructions dictated how the King’s fleet should respond to various situations or specified commands. As with the initial contact orders example, we see some adjustments between the 1653 instructions and the more complete instructions from the mid to late 1700s. For example, the 1653 Commonwealth Orders state that any enemy vessel captured was to be burned immediately so that “our own ships be not disabled or any work interrupted by the departing of men or boats from the ships.”[3] By 1665, this order was replaced with instructions to leave the vessel if fighting was still ongoing, allowing for action against the disabled vessel afterwards.[4]

This demonstrated a maturation of the Fighting Instructions to provide better control over time, as the aforementioned lead-in sentence indicated. Perhaps the original guidance to immediately burn the enemy ship was breaking the commanding admirals’ lines, and so modifications were given to ensure that ships in the line did not unexpectedly depart to sink now nonthreatening vessels while firepower was needed elsewhere. We see a similar evolution in regards to caring for a disabled British frigate. Supplementary Instructions from 1650 ordered that when a friendly ship was “distressed or disabled” or in danger of sinking that the ships next to it should immediately make toward the vessel to assist.[5] However, again perhaps because this order to aid resulted in unexpected and/or unnecessary breaks in the order of battle, this command was made much more specific. The Fighting Instructions of the Duke of York in 1665 clarify that if a royal ship is “not being in probability of sinking nor encompassed by the enemy, the following ships shall not stay under pretence of securing them…”[6]

Following the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Fighting Instructions slowly evolve in order to achieve a balance between the admiral’s need to know where his vessels are and how he should expect them to respond, with an individual captain’s need for flexibility in the midst of combat. For example, the Commonwealth Instructions from 1653 state that, once fighting commenced, “ships of every squadron shall endeavour to keep in a line with the chief.”[7] Similarly, the Duke of York’s Additional Instructions of 1665 repeat this: “In all cases of fight with the enemy the commanders of his majesty’s ships are to endeavour to keep the fleet in one line.”[8]

The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1962 by V. Zveg (US Navy employee)
The Battle of Virginia Capes, 1962 by V. Zveg (US Navy employee)

But despite the value of maintaining the order of battle, by 1740, Admiral Vernon’s Additional Instructions allow for some decentralized flexibility: “And as it is morally impossible to fix any general rule to occurrences that must be regulated from the weather and the enemy’s disposition, this is left to the respective captain’s judgment that shall be ordered out of the line to govern himself by as becomes an officer of prudence, and as he will answer the contrary at his peril.”[9] So while the Instructions may have been somewhat cumbersome, we do witness a maturation in this attempt to codify an admiral’s ability to control his fleet in combat.

Within these documents, there appears to be an expectation that naval officers, particularly captains, are familiar with the Instructions. In several instances, severe punishment is promised for any abrogation of these rules. Even the earliest Supplementary Instructions from 1650 state that commanders and masters of “small frigates, ketches and smacks” were to know the disposition of enemy fireships, and to prevent them from engaging the fleet. If unsuccessful, they were to fight them directly, “the neglect thereof strictly and severely called to account.”[10] This warning is repeated throughout the years. Even a death sentence is threatened specifically for commanders who fire cannon over friendly vessels.[11] This expected knowledge in indicative of a growing naval professionalism quite separate from land forces.

Sources: Fighting Instructions, 1530-1816: Publications Of The Navy Records Society Vol. XXIX (

[1] This opening line is present on several iterations of the Instructions. Royal Navy Fighting Instructions, from Fighting Instructions, 1530-1816, ed. Julian S. Corbett (Naval Records Society, 1905) 1.

[2] Ibid, 2, 3-4, 9.

[3] Ibid, 5.

[4] Ibid, 10.

[5] Ibid, 2.

[6] Ibid, 11.

[7] Royal Navy Fighting Instructions, ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 11.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 3.

[11] Ibid, 18.


Military Intelligence History: Ciphers in WWII ENIGMA and SIGABA.


I wrote an article for Yahoo! a few years ago (that I intend on updating this year) that proposed the top five intelligence victories that turned the tide of war. The ENIGMA story is arguably one of the most significant of these victories. I have yet to see The Imitation Game (it’s on the list!), but from what I understand, it omits quite a bit of the intelligence work (and luck) that went into breaking the unbreakable code. Cracking Enigma took a combination of old fashioned spy work, signals collection (meaning the interception of radio transmissions), and cryptography. Polish breakthroughs combined with a German traitor (provided by the French) resulted in the first successes against Enigma. The British and Americans were able to expand this success into breaking the even more resilient Enigma machines used by the German Navy.

These photos were taken at the National Museum of the US Air Force.

Pic 1: SIGABA – SIGABA was a US cipher machine based on the electromechanical rotor principle. It was developed in the late 1930s as a joint effort of the US Army and Navy [1]. At the time it was considered a superior cryptomachine, intended to keep high-level communications absolutely secure. It was used throughout WWII and was so reliable that it was used well into the 1950s, when it was replaced by machines like theKL-7. As far as we know, SIGABA was never broken. (


Pic 2: ENIGMA – The Enigma machine is an electro-mechanical device that relies on a series of rotating ‘wheels’ or ‘rotors’ to scramble plaintext messages into incoherent ciphertext. The machine’s variable elements can be set in many billions of combinations, and each one will generate a completely different ciphertext message. If you know how the machine has been set up, you can type the ciphertext back in and it will unscramble the message. If you don’t know the Enigma setting, the message remains indecipherable. (


For an awesome introduction to ciphers and the workings of ENIGMA, check out Tony Sales’s Ciphers and Codes at

WWII Imagery Intelligence: K-24 Camera

K-24 Camera

I took this picture at the National Museum of the US Air Force. My first job in the Air Force was as an Imagery Analyst, so cameras and other Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) platforms always draw my interest. Some info:

The K-24 camera, developed in 1942, is a modification of the British F-24 camera. More than 9,000 K-24 cameras were made for use in tactical reconnaissance aircraft in World War II, including the Supermarine Spitfire, the North American F-6 (modified P-51), and the Canadian-built De Havilland F-8 (modified Mosquito). The K-24 camera had two basic functions: night aerial reconnaissance and orientation, or verifying a bomber’s position over a target when a bomb is released. (from US Air Force Fact Sheet).

The camera consists of four major units: Magazine, Gear Box, and shutter body and lens cone. IT takes a picture 5 inches square, and has “no altitude limitations…as long as the photoflash bomb provides sufficient illumination on the subject during the period the shutters are open.” (From K-24 Aerial Reconnaissance Manual)

Link to US Air Force Fact Sheet:

Link to K-24 documentation:

For Want of Horses and Ships: Social and Economic Constraints of Christian and Muslim Forces During the Third Crusade

 Acre Given to Phillip Augustus 1191

In Warriors of God (Doubleday, 2001), James Reston Jr. describes an event that took place outside of Nazareth, in the Holy Land, only two months before the devastating route of Christian forces at Hattin in 1187. 130 mounted Templars, Hospitalers, and other knights intercepted7,000 Muslim soldiers under the command of Saladin. Sure that victory would be supplied by God, the knights charged into the vastly superior army. God did not provide victory, however, and only a handful escaped with their lives. The cost of the ill-considered attack in trained knights, responsible for defending the Christian kingdom against an increasingly powerful and numerous enemy, was of course significant. But there were other casualties that were felt nearly as keenly: that of the horses. The loss of over 100 mounts was considered so serious that the need for replacements was specifically called out to Pope Urban III. In a plea for resources to replace the combat losses, the Master of the Temple (Gerard de Ridgefort, who actually led the ill-fated attack, and who somehow survived) emphasized the “serious losses of horses and arms, quite apart from the loss of men…”[1]

This brief comment highlights a specific problem for the Christian kingdom in particular, and suggests a broader question that can be applied to any of the Crusades, but will be considered here for the battles that were to occur following Hattin: how did economic constraints and resource limitations help to shape the events of the Third Crusade? Both King Richard of England and Saladin, the Sultan who ruled Palestine, Egypt, and Syria, were burdened with very different limitations on their resources and logistics. It is interesting that these limitations were proportionately crippling to the military might of each side which, in the end, resulted in a stalemate that shaped the landscape of the Holy Land for a century after the conflict.

Following the victory by Saladin over the Christians in 1187, the cities of the Crusader States fell rapidly. It was in response to this defeat of most of the Christian Kingdom in Palestine that King Richard, German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and Philip Augustus, King of France answered the call to crusade by Pope Gregory VIII, who replaced Urban III after his death toward the close of 1187.[2] The logistical and resource obstacles could scarcely have been more challenging. Of all that once comprised the Outremer, only Tyre remained. It was decided that Emperor Barbarossa would move his massive army overland and enter Palestine through Byzantium in the North, while Richard and Phillip Augustus would sail with their armies to Tyre.[3]


Richard the Lionheart

As King Richard marshaled his forces, he faced the same daunting challenges as his predecessors in waging war in Palestine. The expedition had to be funded, forces raised, and then transported from Europe to the Levant. Neither in regards to manpower nor in equipment could the Outremer supply itself. The Christian kingdom had ruled over a primarily Muslim population who (except for local bands of mercenaries called the turcopoles) were not likely to rise up in her defense.[4]

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