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 Fireships 
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Post Fireships
Fireship: A military vessel loaded with explosives and combustible material and set adrift among enemy ships or fortifications to destroy them.

The definition of fireship above is, I believe, correct. However, I found something bizarre in a book I am reading. Per Mary’s post, I started reading "Nelson’s Hero: The Story of his ‘Sea-Daddy’, Captain William Locker" by Victor T. Sharman.

At the end of page 22 and the top of page 23, it is noted that Locker was made master of the fireship "Roman Emperor." After the word fireship there is a footnote. Reading the footnote on page 28, I find the following:

Naval Chronicle. Vol.5.1801. Although retaining the ancient name, the "fireship," unlike the Roman predecessors, did not run amongst the enemy fleets setting fire to itself to cause mayhem but was a term used for small cruisers.

Small cruisers???

The version of "The Naval Chronicle" that I own is the consolidated edition (1998), edited by Nicholas Tracy. I cannot find anything that confirms that a fireship was a cruiser. Sounds like a big mistake to me, but does anyone have access to the original "Naval Chronicle" to confirm or deny this?

Don


Mon Feb 27, 2006 2:12 pm
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The wording of the note is sort of confusing/misleading. I don't know anything about Roman fireships, but it sounds like the author was just trying to make it clear that the fireship in question was not like the ancient Roman ones.

More "modern" vessels fitted out as fireships could/would act as small cruisers until the point where they were needed for their stated purpose. Maybe the Roman ones were built/used solely for the stated purpose?

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susan


Mon Feb 27, 2006 7:20 pm
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susan wrote:
The wording of the note is sort of confusing/misleading. I don't know anything about Roman fireships, but it sounds like the author was just trying to make it clear that the fireship in question was not like the ancient Roman ones.

More "modern" vessels fitted out as fireships could/would act as small cruisers until the point where they were needed for their stated purpose. Maybe the Roman ones were built/used solely for the stated purpose?

Susan, that makes sense. I don’t know anything about Roman navy fireships either. However, if Roman fireships were single purpose and the Nelson era fireships were dual purpose, the note is sensible. The author certainly could have been a bit clearer about that, at least for me. I looked on-line and the Roman Emperor ship captained by Locker was plainly identified as a fireship, had 8 guns, was purchased in 1757, and sold in 1763. I doubt if a fireship was sent into a "fire" mission with guns (in either era), so having 8 guns is a big clue to its dual purpose. Just as obvious, this particular ship was never used as a fireship.

Off hand, I do not remember reading of any incident where dual purpose British fireships were stripped of its guns and sent toward the enemy. My memory is of using fishing boats, small captured enemy ships, or British navy ships in very poor condition as fireships. In some cases, dedicated fireships like these "disposable" ships were gathered some time before an attack on an enemy port.

Does anyone remember reading of using a ship like the Roman Emperor in a fireship attack?

Another aspect would be engaging one of these ships, not as a fireship, but in a regular ship to ship action. I assume that the ship would be sailing in a condition to be easily converted to a fireship. Would it have extra combustibles already aboard? Openings for good airflow below decks? Assuming those conditions existed, it would make it kind of dangerous in a normal battle, at least in my mind.

Don


Mon Feb 27, 2006 10:20 pm
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I know it's a novel, but do you have C. Northcote Parkinson's Fireship? There are some general details in there (I am assuming Parkinson did his homework...I know...never assume) to use as a basis for further investigation. And I see a good point is brought up...externally a fireship had to look like any other sloop because having it rigged a certain way would take away the element of surprise.

Here's one account of an action involving fireships.

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susan


Mon Feb 27, 2006 10:57 pm
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susan wrote:
I know it's a novel, but do you have C. Northcote Parkinson's Fireship?

Yes Susan, I do have the Parkinson book. Its been awhile since I read it but I pulled out my notes and, would you believe, the sloop "Spit Fire" (14) [all 18 pdr. carronades] was built as a fireship! With the link you provided, it seems that such dual purpose fireships were not rare. I'll be on the lookout in future reading for other instances.

Don


Mon Feb 27, 2006 11:53 pm
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Don, at the risk of posting something you already know, there are details of fire/explosion ships in Harvey's COCHRANE - The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain. In the case of the Battle of Aix Roads, transports were utilised.

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Tue Feb 28, 2006 8:25 am
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Post Sir Sidney Smith
And, of course, there is Napoleon's favorite arsonist, Sir Sidney Smith. The biography I have of him is "Thrist for Glory: Life of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith" by Tom Pocock.


Don


Tue Feb 28, 2006 10:04 am
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Post Re: Fireships
The Times, January 31st, 1785:

".....Several vessels recently purchased by Government have been fitted out at Woolwich within these few weeks, to serve as fire-ships; being now completed, they will proceed to Sheerness without delay. ....."

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