Sir Thomas Cochrane: The British Naval Officer Who Proposed Saturation Bombing & Chemical Warfare During the Napoleonic Wars

6/12/2006 • Military History

In March 1812, Britain’s prince regent, the future George IV, received from an officer in the Royal Navy a secret proposal aimed at undermining the power of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s military might in a manner guaranteed to revolutionize the rigid customs of warfare. At that time, General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was struggling through Spain. The strength of the Royal Navy was being sapped by the need to maintain a tedious blockade of the key French ports where Bonaparte’s warships waited for an opportunity to escape into the Atlantic. The naval officer’s proposal, which the prince turned over to his advisers, offered a radical scheme by which a beachhead on the coast of France could be gained quickly and decisively.

The author of the plan was Captain Sir Thomas, Lord Cochrane, a man whose exploits exceeded in fact what most of his progeny in naval fiction have been able to accomplish. His career began quite inconspicuously at age 17 in June 1793, when he joined his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane, aboard the 28-gun frigate Hind as a midshipman. His father, Archibald, the ninth Earl of Dundonald, was an unsuccessful inventor with disastrous pecuniary habits who provided his 6-foot-2-inch, redheaded heir with little beyond the necessities of life. Nevertheless, the young man was destined to set the naval world on its ear.

Within three years of his enlistment, Thomas Cochrane gained a lieutenancy, and in 1800 he was given command of His Majesty’s Ship Speedy, a brig-sloop armed with 14 puny 4-pounder cannons, with which he nevertheless managed to capture the Spanish frigate Gamo in May 1801. Such an impressive feat, combined with a string of other captures, should have won Cochrane an immediate and splendid advancement to one of the sleekest greyhounds in the British fleet.

Cochrane, however, was by nature a supreme idealist who did not hesitate for a moment to point out problems to his superiors and to argue tenaciously for justice as he perceived it. As a result, it was not until 1804, when a change in governmental administration brought Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville and a fellow Scot, to Whitehall, that Cochrane finally was given the freshly built frigate Pallas (32 guns) and carte blanche to patrol the North Atlantic convoy route near the Azores.

Within two months, Cochrane had seized such a vast amount of enemy shipping and cargo that he alone earned 75,000 pounds sterling in prize money and returned to Portsmouth with 5-foot-tall candlesticks made of solid gold strapped to the mastheads. Cochrane’s later raids on the Biscay Coast caused Napoleon to label him ‘le loup des mers‘ (the sea wolf), and raised his reputation among the British public to an exalted height.

Cochrane’s star was fated to crash to earth, however. Following the mishandling of a British squadron under Admiral James Gambier in an action against a French squadron at Aix Roads in April 1809, Cochrane, who had attained partial success early in the operation, became embroiled in Gambier’s resultant court-martial. The admiral was acquitted, but Cochrane lacked the skills in public debate that he demonstrated in combat, and he suffered personal humiliation as a result of the inquiry. That experience, combined with his election to Parliament as an independent but reform-minded member for the village of Honiton, helped to earn him numerous political enemies and to delay his reassignment to another command afloat. Cochrane did not sit around and stew, however. It was during that period of unemployment that Cochrane proposed to Prince George his unique approach for freeing the Royal Navy squadrons from their arduous blockades and for reducing the fortifications that protected the critical French ports.

Cochrane detailed for the prince regent the use of two innovative weapons systems, the ‘temporary mortar,’ or ‘explosion ship,’ and the’sulphur ship,’ or’stink vessel.’ An early version of the former device already had been used with only partial success during the opening phase of the Aix Roads action in 1809. Cochrane had been ordered by the Admiralty to employ fire ships against the 11 ships of the line and sundry frigates under Vice Adm. Comte Allemand, since Gambier had refused to employ such vile means to dislodge the enemy. Along with the conventional fire ships, Cochrane also had sent against the French three vessels crammed with 1,500 barrels of gunpowder topped with shells and grenades. The floating powder kegs, set off by fuses, were designed to vent their wrath against the enemy in colossal detonations, but a protective boom set up by the French to stop the fire ships also frustrated Cochrane’s explosion ships.

In his thorough presentation to the prince regent in 1812, Cochrane modified the design of the original explosion ship. For each temporary mortar, a hulk, rather than a rigged vessel, was to be used. The decks would be removed, and an inner shell would be constructed of heavy timbers and braced strongly to the hull. In the bottom of the shell would be laid a layer of clay, into which obsolete ordnance and metal scrap were embedded. The ‘charge,’ in the form of a thick layer of powder, would next be placed, and above that would be laid rows and rows of shells and animal carcasses.

The explosion ship would then be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle by means of an adjustment in the ballast loaded in the spaces running along each side of the hulk between the inner and outer hulls, and anchored securely. When detonated, the immense mortar would blast its lethal load in a lofty arc, causing it to spread out over a wide area and to fall on the enemy in a deadly torrent. Experiments conducted with models in the Mediterranean, during his layoff, convinced Cochrane that three explosion ships, properly handled, could saturate a half-mile-square area with 6,000 missiles–enough destructive force to cripple any French squadron even if it lay within an enclosed anchorage.

The follow-up to the explosion ship, or temporary mortar, would be an attack on land fortifications once again using hulks. As before, clay would be used to line the old hull, but the upper deck would remain intact so that it could be covered first with a layer of charcoal, then with an amount of sulphur equaling about one-fifth the volume of the fuel. It was intended to float such a potential stink vessel up against a shore battery or fortification when the wind blew landward, and then ignite the charcoal.

The resultant clouds of ‘noxious effluvia,’ as Cochrane termed them, were expected to be pungent enough to reduce all opposition as the defenders ran away to escape the choking gas. A quick landing by British marines could then secure an otherwise unattainable position and clear the way for the establishment of a beachhead. Cochrane had also experimented with that technique, drawing on the propensity he had inherited from his father for dabbling in chemistry, in particular with the properties of coal and its byproducts, coke and coal tar.

The prince regent turned Cochrane’s ideas over to a panel of experts that included Sir William Congreve and his son; the king’s second son, Frederick Augustus (the Duke of York); and two admirals, George, Lord Keith and Lord Exmouth (the former Sir Edward Pellew). At length, that expert panel decided that there was merit in Cochrane’s unusual scheme, but fear of the implications that such radical devices would have on conventional warfare stifled their enthusiasm. What would happen, they mused, if the enemy gained knowledge of this frightful new technology and turned it against Britain’s defenses? The proposal was rejected, and Cochrane pledged never to make the details known to the public.

During the next two decades, numerous opportunities presented Cochrane with reasons to forsake his promise of silence. His cries in Parliament for naval reforms raised the ire of his political enemies, who worked to defame him. When the London Stock Exchange scandal erupted in 1814, Cochrane unwittingly found himself among the men charged with illegal financial manipulations. The outcome of the case brought Cochrane imprisonment, dismissal from the Royal Navy and the removal of his knighthood.

In 1818, Cochrane left England and spent the next 10 years serving as a fabulously successful mercenary admiral for Chile, Peru, Brazil and Greece. Returning home in 1829, he campaigned for British officials to take another look at his past crimes, which he accomplished three years later when, having inherited the title of Earl of Dundonald, he was pardoned by King William IV and readmitted to the navy list with the rank of rear admiral of the fleet.

As a proponent of steam vessels and reform in the navy, Cochrane stayed active, but he spent only three years (1849­1851) on full pay, as commander in chief of the West Indies station. In 1853, as the possibility of war in the Crimea increased, Cochrane proposed to the Admiralty the use of explosion ships and stink vessels at Sevastopol on the Black Sea, or in the Baltic at Kronstadt, as a means of destroying Russian entrenchments. The idea was quickly dismissed by First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham.

The next year brought the certainty of war, and Cochrane–then 79 years old–was considered for placement as commander in chief of the Baltic fleet. The fact that he was passed over was not due to his advanced age, however. Graham explained in a letter to Queen Victoria that Prime Minister George Aberdeen and his cabinet feared that Cochrane’s ‘adventurous spirit’ would lead him to perform’some desperate enterprise,’ which might complicate the difficult international situation. In July 1854, Cochrane again urged Graham to employ his patent stink vessels to route the Russian troops away from the fortifications of the harbor at Kronstadt, so that a British landing could be made and the enemy’s guns manned and turned on the Russian ships anchored beneath the batteries. He even offered his services as a consultant to accompany Sir Charles Napier, who had been given charge of the British fleet. Once more, however, the scheme was rejected, and Napier sailed to the Baltic, where he eventually failed to subdue Kronstadt.

Cochrane supported Napier’s efforts publicly, but informed a newspaper correspondent that he had provided the government with a plan that could solve the problem. No journalistic investigation appears to have been undertaken to determine the nature of that plan, even though Cochrane sought command of the fleet in 1855 when the new prime minister, Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, came to power.

Once again, Cochrane suggested to the press that utilization of his unnamed innovative devices would mean that a little more than a week of fair weather in the Crimea would be enough to settle the conflict. Cochrane took his appeal to Parliament, where he sought support for forcing the government to employ his new weapons against the enemy. Public support increased for using the weapon, and it was even suggested that private funds be used to equip the admiral with the resources he needed to get the job done independently.

Throughout the debate, the details of the scheme remained secret. In the board room at the Admiralty, the plan showed the stink vessels with layers of coke and sulphur ready to emit their choking fog. Added to the scheme, however, was the intention to create a smoke screen by burning barrels of tar or pouring naphtha onto the surface of the harbor and igniting it with potassium. Cochrane figured that a few hours would accomplish what months of debilitating conventional warfare had failed to achieve. Palmerston’s government appeared to be close to sanctioning the strategy when Sevastopol was taken in September 1855, followed soon by the war’s end. All discussion of the revolutionary weapons was dropped, and the plans were sealed away on the shelves reserved for confidential materials at Whitehall.

Sir Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, died on October 31, 1860. His secret war plans remained secure until 1908, when Lord Palmerston’s correspondence was published. Less than a decade later, the sulphuric yellow clouds of mustard gas ravaged thousands in the trenches of France.

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