March 07, 2018

The Bombardment of Alexandria

We've talked about the early British ironclads at some length, and while these ships are fascinating, they were also never used in battle, with one exception. In 1881, the populace of Egypt revolted against the unofficial Anglo-French control of the country, threatening to depose the Khedive. The greater problem from the British perspective was that this also imperiled their control of the Suez Canal, the vital lifeline to British India. A squadron of ironclads was dispatched to Alexandria, and after riots in June of 1882, the Egyptians began to fortify the city, adding guns to the defensive works. The British repeatedly requested that the work be stopped, finally delivering an ultimatum that if the fortifications were not surrendered for disarmament, they would bombard the city on July 11th.

That morning, at 7 AM, the British moved in. The fleet consisted of the central-battery ships Alexandra, Invincible, Superb, Sultan and Penelope, the hybrid barbette/central battery ironclad Temeraire and the turret ships Monarch and Inflexible, the last of these under the command of Jackie Fisher. The total broadside of this force was 22,500 lbs from 44 heavy muzzle-loading guns. Supporting these ships was a torpedo boat, a dispatch boat, five smaller gun vessels, and a telegraph ship that had picked up the undersea cables to Malta and Cyprus, and was able to relay news of the action to London in near-real time.

The Egyptian fortifications between them could match the British broadside in number of rifles, although their guns were smaller and a full salvo totaled only 9,400 lb. Backing these were 211 smooth-bore guns and 38 mortars. They had a great deal of ammunition, which the British were short of, but made up for it with poor gunnery throughout the engagement.

Alexandra, Sultan and Superb were off the Lighthouse Fort, on the T of the breakwater of the harbors, while the other ironclads prepared to attack the Mex Forts which guarded the entrance to the main (southern) harbor. Vast clouds of smoke were generated by the gunfire, and they drifted towards the land, obscuring the view of the gunners. Officers in the tops spotted the fire, but the primitive state of naval gunnery meant that this was only a small help, and British shooting was fairly poor.

The Egyptians fought back gallantly but ineffectually. Their crews fought through shrapnel and fire from the British Gatlings and Nordenfelts, even though their shots literally bounced off the armor of the British warships. At 8:30, Monarch's fire set off the powder magazine of the fort at Maza El Kanat, near the Mex batteries. This was the first of the Egyptian defenses to fall, and it was soon followed by Fort Marabout.

"Well done, Condor"

Fort Marabout, at the extreme western end of Alexandria, was firing on Monarch and Temeraire. To silence it, the gunboat Condor, under Charles Beresford1 went in close. Beresford actually brought his unarmored ship in so close that the 9" guns of the fort that they couldn't target him effectively, then anchored, pulling his ship back and forth with the cables. After an hour and a half of this, which distracted the defenders so badly that they stopped molesting the rest of the fleet, the other gunboats were ordered in to join him, and they soon drove the Egyptians from the batteries with concentrated machine-gun fire. Later, as Condor steamed past the flagship, she was greeted with cheers and a signal of "Well done, Condor".

This cover allowed the ships engaging Mex to silence those forts by about 12:30, and later in the day, a 12-man landing party was sent ashore, which destroyed eight guns without loss.

The action off the Lighthouse

Off the Lighthouse, Alexandra, Sultan and Superb anchored at about 9, to improve the accuracy of their fire. One of the more startling actions of the day occurred after a shell hit Alexandra's unarmored side and ended up on her deck. One of the gunners, Israel Harding, heard the call that the shell was on deck, and rushed up the ladder, dousing the shell's fuse.2 For this act, he received the Victoria Cross.

Israel Harding

The Lighthouse forts were disabled shortly after noon thanks to the great weight of British fire, and the bombardment moved on to the other forts on the T, at Adda and Pharos. At 1:30, Adda's magazine was set off by a shot from Superb. Pharos quickly fell silent under the intense bombardment, and the British finished the day at the last major fort, Silsileh, which protected the north harbor. Finally, at 5:30, they ceased fire, retreating to their positions of the previous night.

The next day saw a few minor exchanges of fire between the British, who had almost exhausted their magazines,3 and the few men who returned to the forts. Despite this continued resistance, by dawn on the 13th, the defenders had definitively given up. The British lost only 5 killed and 28 wounded, while Egyptian casualties are estimated to be somewhere around 700, including both civilian and military casualties. The ships held up reasonably well, despite taking substantial fire. Alexandra took 24 hits outside her armor, along with numerous hits on her protected citadel. Two of her guns were disabled by shells bursting inside. Inflexible took a 10" hit outside her citadel which killed two men, and the concussion of her massive guns did substantial damage to her superstructure and boats. Penelope, Invincible, Superb and Sultan also took damage, although no armor was penetrated and none of the ships were rendered incapable of combat.

Damage at Fort Mex

Inspection of the forts revealed that, though impressive, the bombardment had done little real damage. Only 10 of the rifled guns were actually disabled in ways that could not have been quickly repaired. Only about 5% of the 1,731 large British shells had hit their targets, and many of those that did failed to detonate. One 8" shell from Penelope was found in a magazine containing 400 tons of gunpowder. This was not a brilliant performance, particularly as it had been conducted under ideal conditions, in calm seas and with the firing ships anchored.

At the time, it was seen as a significant victory, but one made possible only by the low morale of the defenders. Even reports shortly after the action emphasized that things would have been very different against a determined opponent, particularly one that made use of mortars and mines or had up-to-date defenses. The age-old wisdom that "a ship's a fool that fights a fort" was still honored, and wouldn't be overturned until WWII, when fire control made shipboard gunnery much more effective. All that said, it was a good performance by the ships and men of the bombardment force, proving that even at the height of its Victorian decadence, the Royal Navy was a force to be reckoned with.

1 Beresford would later be a major rival of Jackie Fisher, and a key player in the late Victorian navy.

2 At this time, shells were fitted with burning time fuses, not impact fuses as they are today.

3 As an interesting aside, one drawback of the central-battery ships that made up the majority of the bombardment force was that the need to support weapons, armor, and engines amidships meant that the path from the magazines to the guns was long and difficult. As a result, most ships had to supplement the ammunition parties with the gun crews of the disengaged side.


  1. March 07, 2018ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Do you know if those ten properly-disabled guns included the eight taken out by the landing party?

  2. March 07, 2018bean said...

    That's a good question. Checking my source (Ironclads in Action), it says that the 10 guns were "disabled by the fire of the fleet". Even if they are double-counting, only two of the eight from the landing party would fall under that 10. The other 6 were smoothbores which nobody really cared about.

  3. March 07, 2018quaelegit said...

    a telegraph ship that had picked up the undersea cables to Malta and Cyprus, and was relaying news of the bombardment to London in near-real time.

    Woah, you could just "patch in" like that? Seem like it might damage the cable if you did it too many times.

    Do you know if this was done at any other other naval engagements of the time period? I suppose the conditions would need to be just right (stationary, preplanned engagement, good sea conditions, etc.).

  4. March 07, 2018bean said...

    Woah, you could just “patch in” like that? Seem like it might damage the cable if you did it too many times.

    I'm not sure exactly how they did it. At the time, cutting the cable and splicing it back together wouldn't have been a huge deal. Or they just picked it up where it went from deep sea cable to coming ashore cable and disconnected it there.

    Do you know if this was done at any other other naval engagements of the time period?

    What other naval engagements?

    I suppose the conditions would need to be just right (stationary, preplanned engagement, good sea conditions, etc.).

    The British owned some absurd proportion of the world's cables, so they weren't likely to let anyone else do this sort of thing. And yes, it would have to be stationary and with advance warning. Which was pretty rare.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

  • bean says:

    Naval Gazing: And now for something completely different. Today, we’re looking at the Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882.

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