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 (Archive.org)

[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.

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