Saturday, June 02, 2007

Old Corps Marines In The Age of Sail: Fighting tops, Repel Boarders, etc.

All Marines, being well versed in the History and Traditions of the Corps, are aware that Marines were used as snipers in the rigging of the old sailing ships, and as boarding parties, etc.
But, very little is taught regarding the details of such. Well, here are the details!
Recommend using the links provided and go back and peruse the entire article--it's a keeper.

Semper Fidelis
Gunny G/Dick Gaines
Old Corps Marines In The Age of Sail: Fighting Tops, Repel Boarders, etc.

The Fighting Tops....

In the earlier form of ships the top was a species of crows nest placed at the head of the mast to hold a look-out, or in military operations to give a place of advantage to archers and slingers. They appear occasionally as mere bags attached to one side of the mast. As a general rule they are round. In the 16th century there were frequently two tops on the fore- and mainmasts, one at the head of the lower, another at the head of the topmast, where in later times there have only been the two traverse beams which make the crosstrees. The upper top dropped out by the 17th century. The form was round, and so coptinued to be till the 18th century when the quadrangular form was introduced.

The English tended to fire at least twice during closing, once at long range and again as they came along side the enemy. Once a ship had neared its foe, it was not to board until the enemy's deck was cleared by cannon fire and archery. The enemy's fighting tops were to be captured, if possible, before the soldiers of the boarding party actually stormed the enemy.

The light guns would not be fired until the two fleets had come close enough to prepare for boarding. They, along with other individual missile weapons, whould be used to clear the enemy's deck.

In the days of sail, the Continental Marines kept order at sea and maintained internal security on board ship. In combat they manned the fighting tops, sniping at gun crews on enemy ships. The fighting top was named this because marines would be stationed there with the purpose of sniping crew [particularly officers] of enemy ships during engagments. The fighting top was a strong wooden crow's nest position high on a warship's mast.

In the Old Corps during the age of sail sharp-shooting Marines climbed the masts and riggings and battled enemy crews from the fighting tops. The Marine sharpshooters in the fighting tops of America's legendary frigates, took on the British navy during the American revolution. On 10 March 1783 Marines in fighting tops of the USS Alliance helped defeat HMS Sibyll. The great frigate duels of the War of 1812 might have ended differently if it were not for the Marine sharp-shooters and grenadiers in the fighting tops of such as Old Ironsides.

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21 October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, between the combined fleets of Spain and France and the Royal Navy. It was the last great sea action of the period. During the battle, HMS Victory ran on board the Redoubtable, just as her tiller ropes were shot away. The French ship received her with a broadside; then let down her lower-deck ports, for fear of being bearded through them, and never afterwards fired a great gun during the action. Her tops, like those of all the enemy's ships, were filled with riflemen. Nelson never placed musketry in his tops; he had a strong dislike to the practice; not merely because it endangered setting fire to the sails, but also because it is a murderous sort of warfare, by which individuals may suffer, and a commander now and then be picked off; but which he believed never can decide the fate of a general engagement. Admiral Nelson was killed, receiving a fatal wound from a musket ball fired by a French sharpshooter in Redoubtable's mizzen fighting top.

Marines did not use rifles in the Revolution and did not become known as expert rifle marksmen until many years later. Close range combat of the day did not require the longer range and precision (nor justify the cost) of the rifle. A trained man could get off only two to three shots a minute with the cheaper smoothbore; but the more expensive rifle took even longer to load. The musket's range of one hundred yards or less made it effective against massed formations in land combat. For seagoing Marines, in the fighting tops or in boarding parties, the action was at fifty yards or less. At that distance, a trained man could be expected to hit a man-sized target.

The seven-barrel topman's musket, built first by a London gunsmith named Nock, gave Marines another competitive edge in close ship-to-ship combat. A Nock flintlock fired all seven barrels at once and the effect against an enemy's fighting top, officers and helmsman on the quarterdeck, or a gun crew was devastating. The recoil against the Marine firing the Nock was less deadly—but nevertheless painful.

Towards the end of the 19th Century the military tops of warships resumed the circular form. USS Olympia (Cruiser # 6, C-6, later CA-15, CL-15, and IX-40), a 5586-ton protected cruiser built at San Francisco, California, was commissioned in February 1895. The cruiser was born out of a program of ships for the "New Navy" of the 1880s and 1890s designed to correct the deficiencies of a weakened and neglected naval force. Known at the time as a Protected Cruiser, she was fast, carried a good armament, with moderate protection. The ship has a double barrel eight inch gun turret on the front of the ship and a double barrel eight inch gun turret on the rear of the ship. Ten (10) Five Inch (127 mm) naval guns are mounted in Casemates; five are mounted on either side of the ship. The guns have a limited arc of fire due to the fact that they were mounted in casemates and cannot be used against air targets. The 1902 overhaul gave her a new rig, removed the torpedo tubes and fighting tops, relocated the hawsepipes, substituted ornate scrollwork and a figurehead for the bow shield, and replaced her 8" turrets with deck guns.
To Repel Boarders...

Once the decks had been cleared, the ship would grapple its opponent and a boarding party of heavily armed soldiers would be sent aboard. During the fight, part of the boarding party would be assigned the task of damaging the enemy's rigging.

On deck Marines led boarding parties in close action and repelled enemy boarding parties. The nickname "Leatherneck" derived from the thick leather stock worn around the neck to protect the Marine from the decapitating slash of an enemy's cutlass.

To board an enemy ship or in a final assault on land, Marines relied on the Brown Bess's bayonet and on a short, brass-barreled flintlock blunderbuss. In the confusion of combat, the latter's flared muzzle made it easy to reload with a charge of powder followed by a handful of buckshot, rocks, nails, or whatever nastiness was available. The blunderbuss evolved into the shotgun, and in the 1847 attack on Mexico City, Marine Major Levi Twiggs carried his favorite double-barreled shotgun. For the trench assaults in France in World War I, Marines adopted repeating shotguns, and used them again in the close combat of jungle fighting in World War II and Viet Nam.

The slow firing muskets made edged weapons a necessary last resort. For close combat, enlisted men's muskets were fitted with bayonets, officers carried a brace of pistols and a sword, and boarding parties from the ship's crew brandished cutlasses and short pikes. The sword for officers was not prescribed until 1829 when the Mameluke sword was authorized. It had become popular with Marines from their service in the Mediterranean against North African pirates. A similar sword is still today a Marine officer's ceremonial sword.

The battle would be a succession of hand-to-hand conflicts to board or to repel boarders. The order "prepare to repel boarders" was issued when a ship was threatened with an enemy assault. Pikemen formed behind those crewmen armed with cutlasses. The Marines, with bayonets fixed, formed behind the pikemen to cover them. At the command "repel boarders," grape and musketry were brought to bear upon the enemy as they prepared to attack. Men remaining on the broadside guns continued to fire, and stood by with pikes to repel enemy attempting to enter through gun ports or quarter galleries.

When this was accomplished, a large well armed and armoured boarding party would storm across to engage the disordered and demoralised enemy. The ship's boats would be armed and loaded with soldiers who would attempt to board the enemy at some place away from the main boarding action.

The sound of the drum is a signal for the crew to take their stations as in action. The call is beaten in such a manner as to be readily understood and distingushed from all others. On hearing it every one on board repairs immediately to his station. When there, the crew is at general quarters. With the order "Cast loose and provide both" the guns are cast loose, for the service of the gun placed in their proper positions ready for use, small arms brought up from the armory, while the quarter gunner of each division provides waist-belts for cutlasses, bayonets, pistols and battle axes.

Each gun's crew to divided into boarders, pikemen, sail-trimmers, firemen and pump-men. The boarders provide themselves with cutlass, revolvers, pikemen have their muskets at hand ready to grasp, pumpmen their battle axes. If it is necessary to call away the boarders, the captain commands-"Boarders on the starboard bow!" Away rush the boarders to the point indicated. "Boarders on their port quarter!" Away they go again and stand by, cutlass in hand ready to board.

At the order "Pikemen over the boarders!" those who are under arms on the poop, with the pikemen, form a line with bayonets, along the deck in rear of the boarders, who keep close down until the order comes to board. At the command "Repel Boarders" the pikemen advance their pieces over the heads of the boarders and fire and though at an imaginary foeuntil the order comes to "Fall back pikemen! Stand by to board!" Board! and with a wild yell the boarders spring to the hammock nettings and rigging, bandishing their weapons, simulating the real thing.

The quarter gunner of the after division is provided with a rattle which he springs when the boarders are called; the sound of a gong calls away the pikemen as in the din of battle-the executive officer, though he has a speaking trumpet might not be distinctly heard. If a fire should break out, a quick ringing of the bell calls away the firemen and pumpmen, who repair to the pumps, and the locality of the fire indicated by rolls of the drum if the fire should be formed, by one roll, and if aft by two: at the third roll the firemen and pumpmen return to their quarters, and the carpenters' coil up the hose.

Tactics In The Age of Sail....
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R.W. "Dick" Gaines
(The Original "Gunny G")
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952- (Plt #437-PISC)-'72
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