The Line of Battle

AKA Battle Line, line-ahead, or column formation

One of the most historically important concepts with regard to naval warfare, the line of battle is also one of the simplest and most frequently referenced formations whenever naval tactics are discussed. There’s a lot of ink that’s been spilled on the development of the line of battle and every battle where it played a contributing factor, decisive or otherwise. Many other posts on this blog also refer to the line of battle, so let’s formally address it here. This post will focus on the general concept of the battle line, its usage, and overall historical development.

What is the Line of Battle?

The line of battle is a tactical formation for warships where vessels move in a line-ahead formation. Basically, the ships in a fleet will form a column, one after the other, and follow the ship in front of them.

(Fioravanzo, 1979, p. 78).

Giuseppe Fioravanzo (1979) writes that ships sailing close-hauled to the wind (i.e. sailing as close to the wind as possible without beating to windward), was best for purposes of either navigation or combat. It was easy for multiple vessels sailing close-hauled to form into a column or a line close-hauled if they were at an angle of 65 degrees or more to the wind, but impossible to form a column if they sailed any closer to the wind. All they had to do was execute a turn. It became the basis of a tactical system for sailing vessels (p. 77 – 78). Moving in this formation, a fleet would then maneuver alongside an enemy fleet, usually in the same formation, and engage by exchanging broadsides.

(Grant, 2008, p. 133)

Composition

Typically, the battle line was composed of three squadrons, being the van, the center, and the rear. The senior admiral would command the center squadron, while the vice admiral and rear admiral would command the van and rear squadrons, respectively (Grant, 2008, p. 133). The division of a fleet into squadrons allowed for more flexible employment of the fleet and for them to more easily form into a battle line. The fleet admiral, in the center (or main body) only needed to worry about transmitting his signals to the admirals of the van and rear squadrons. All other ships in the line would follow their respective flagship (Fioravanzo, 1979, p. 86).

Warship Rate# of guns (1746 – 1810)# of guns (after 1810)# of decksCrew
First-rate>100>1103850+
Second-rate84 – 10090 – 1103750 – 850
Third-rate70 – 8480 – 902500 – 720
Fourth-rate50 – 7060 – 802350 – 420
Fifth-rate32 – 5032 – 601215 – 295
Sixth-rate≤32≤321120 – 195
(O’Neill, 2003, p. 57).

In 1746, warships in the Royal Navy were classified into six rates based on the number of guns they carried. Only ships of the first three rates were considered powerful enough to be part of the battle line. However, fourth-rate ships (being fairly rare) did sometimes join the line, particularly in smaller navies. Fifth and sixth-rate ships (frigates) never operated as part of the battle line, however, their better maneuverability meant that they could be used as scouts to reconnoiter ahead of the fleet. During a fleet engagement, they would standoff from the battle line and repeat the signal flags hoisted by the flagship for other ships further down or up the line to see. Apart from those duties, frigates could operate as escorts for merchant convoys or independently by raiding the enemy’s merchant ships (in which case they were known as cruisers) (O’Neill, 2003, p. 56 – 57).

A ship powerful enough to be a part of the battle line was known as a “ship of the line.” This is also where the term “battleship” came from since these ships were also known as “line of battle ships.”

Usage

When combat was imminent the windward fleet would approach the enemy fleet in line-abreast (side-by-side). They would then form a battle line by wearing ship in the same direction and come into a line-ahead formation. Ideally, each ship in the battle line would bring itself alongside an enemy ship (where the enemy fleet was also arrayed in a battle line), and the two evenly matched columns would sail on the same tack while exchanging broadsides (Grant, 2008, p. 133).

A Method of Massing Firepower

Rough arcs of fire for sailing ships of the line in a battle line. Note the ranges of the guns and close spacing between ships in the line (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 37).

The point-blank range for most guns during the age of sail was within 300 yards and the effective range was usually no more than 500 yards. The maximum range was around 800 – 900 yards, however, the odds of hitting an enemy vessel or penetrating the hull at the maximum range was unlikely. Firing arcs were around 25 degrees forward and aft of the beam, but training the guns individually was awkward, so it was often easier to turn the ship itself. Consequently, it was difficult for two ships in a line-ahead formation to concentrate their fire on a single enemy ship.

Given these limitations, the logic behind building ships of the line with multiple gun decks was that it was easier to mass firepower vertically in a single ship. In 1697, French naval tactician, and Jesuit priest, Paul Hoste wrote that individual vessel size was a greater factor in firepower than the number of vessels in the fleet. His reasoning was that larger ships could carry more guns of a larger caliber and that larger ships could bring more firepower to a column of the same length as a column of smaller ships more closely spaced together (as cited in Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 36). By the latter half of the 1700s even two-decked ships (third-rates) were part of the battle line only when needed (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 37).

Combat in this era demonstrated that (barring a powder magazine explosion) ships were often not sunk by gunfire, although they could sink later due to hull damage. More often than not, ships were defeated by having their guns and gun crews knocked out (AKA a firepower kill), and by having their crews’ morale crushed. Furthermore, just as many ships were captured as were sunk due to action. The British were known to be aggressive fighters, whereas the French possessed superior ships. Even then, a number of vessels in the Royal Navy were, in fact, refurbished French vessels (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 37).

A Method of Control

While the line of battle did serve as a method of massing firepower, it was primarily a means for the admiral to control the fleet. Hughes and Girrier (2018) note that two-decked warships had become widespread by the time the line-ahead formation was adopted and admirals realized that maintaining close intervals between the ships created mutual support. That being said, the Fighting Instructions often specified unrealistically close intervals, often as little as three ship lengths*. The problem was that even keeping a dozen ships at proper intervals was difficult without overtaking and masking the fire of another ship ahead in the line. For this reason, ships in a line often sailed under “fighting sails” using only their topsails. This gave the line a slow speed of about 300 feet per minute (~3 knots) (p. 38 – 39). Richard O’Neill (2003) similarly writes that the maximum speed of even the fastest ships in battle during the age of sail was only around 5 – 6 knots, even while under topsails. Other factors included how much fouling was on the bottom of a vessel, and what the speed of the slowest ship in the formation was. The alternative would be to leave the slower ships behind, but that decreased the strength of the battle line (p. 121). This doesn’t mean that naval battles at the time were any less hectic or violent once the shooting started since they occasionally degenerated into melees and frantic boarding actions. It just means that it would take longer for ships to get into position. Even so, maintaining formation in a battle line was not a simple task for sailing ships, and vessels could easily fall behind with squadrons or individual ships in the line becoming separated. Thus, it can be assumed that cohesion and control of the line, as well as firepower, were valued over sheer speed. Much of the crew were needed to man the guns anyway.

*Distances were specified in cables of 240 yards long. During the Anglo-Dutch Wars, when ships were around 50 yards long, at least one set of instructions specified a distance of half a cable (120 yards). 2 cable lengths were more common later.

Hughes and Girrier (2018) further identify two more reasons for the line having such close spacing. Firstly, it prevented enemy ships from more easily breaking the line and using raking fire against the bow and stern of the two ships it was between. This, in turn, would also prevent the enemy from “doubling the line” where they would envelop and attack the line from both sides. Secondly, the closely spaced line afforded more protection in the event the enemy attacked a portion of the line. For instance, if only the rear of the line were engaged then any ships downwind would have to laboriously beat to windward to join the fighting (p. 39).

Development of the Battle Line

The Line in the Age of Sail

Arguably, one of the first uses of the battle line tactic was seen with the Dutch, under Admiral Maarten Tromp, during the Battle of Dunkirk in September of 1639 where Tromp’s forces fought in a close-hauled line against the Spanish. Tromp supposedly told his commanders to “work in such a manner that these our ships unite so closely, that by no chance will they allow any contrary force to penetrate between them.” However, it’s been noted that the usage of the line in this battle was an anomaly and only a defensive tactic to hold off the superior Spanish force. In reality, the Dutch still resorted to melee tactics (Palmer, 2005, p. 45 – 46). Another early documented case of the Dutch using the battle line occurred the following month during the Battle of the Downs in October of 1639. Even then, it wasn’t until the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652 – 1654) where it was systematically adopted by the English as a part of the Fighting Instructions given to admirals. Over time, the line became an accepted practice in several navies and it was assumed that both sides would use the battle line in an engagement (Grant, 2008, p. 133).

The Anglo-Dutch Wars

Prior to the formal adoption of the line, naval fleets were composed of ships of varying sizes, often just armed merchantmen, and frequently crewed by sailors with questionable discipline for sailing in formation. Not to mention that many early naval officers were drawn from the army and were more familiar with warfare on land than at sea. As a result, ships often sailed in groups with little in the way of cohesive control between each other. The First Anglo-Dutch War, caused by trade disputes between the English and the Dutch, saw a series of six naval battles. Early battles suggest that the English commanders tried to create loose line-ahead formations, each under a separate admiral, but once the battle was joined, the fighting frequently devolved into melees, and victory was determined more along the lines of whether or not the enemy retreated, rather than by how many enemy ships were sunk or captured. Things changed when Oliver Cromwell sent Admiral Robert Blake, along with Generals Richard Deane and George Monck to sea. Together, they enforced more discipline in the fleet and issued orders that the line-ahead would become the basic formation where ships would form up on a specific flagship in separate lines. More than likely, it’s believed that the adoption of the line was more for reasons of control of the fleet rather than concentrating firepower. Given the undisciplined nature of the captains and crews, it’s logical that some semblance of order needed to be drilled into the men (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 39 – 41).

Michael Palmer (2005) opines that the more reflective English commanders must have concluded early in the war that the line-ahead formation was more effective than the previous squadron-centered order of battle. Furthermore, he notes that we can only presume that the English employed some sort of linear formation prior to the spring of 1653, either as an experiment or by accident, which would explain why the subsequent instructions to the fleet standardized the line-ahead as a battle formation. Additionally, there is no evidence that the English “stole” the idea for the battle line from the Dutch (p. 45 – 46). Michael Lewis believes that the First Anglo-Dutch War produced the line-ahead and that the English were the ones who came up with it. On 29 March 1653, Blake, Deane, and Monck issued detailed instructions to the fleet regarding the order in sailing and in battle. The use of communications in naval battles was still primitive, but these were the most detailed instructions yet issued by the Royal Navy. “All ships in every squadron shall endeavor to keep in line with their chief” (as cited in Palmer, 2005, p. 46). The utility of the battle line was demonstrated shortly thereafter during the Battle of Gabbard Bank in June of 1653. Reports indicated that the English fleet used a linear battle line formation, or something akin to it. Contrary winds kept the Dutch from closing the range and forced a long-range gunnery duel which the British won without losing any ships, although Deane was killed in action. It was also the first engagement where the surviving fleet was in good enough shape to continue operations (Palmer, 2005, p. 48 – 49).

Effectively, the adoption of the line of battle achieved four things for naval warfare during the First Anglo-Dutch War:

  1. Allowed each admiral to control his column (squadron) with only a handful of signals.
  2. Alleviated the problem of vessels firing on others in the same squadron. This was frequently a problem during the hectic and smoke-obscured action of a melee.
  3. Ended the problem of many captains and sailors shirking their duties. Article seven of the Fighting Instructions warned that severe punishments awaited those who failed to join the line when ordered.
  4. Allowed for the opportunity of all three squadrons to join the action in the shortest amount of time. Ships not joining the battle weren’t seen as potential reserves for reinforcement, but rather as wasted firepower. This is especially true given the slow movement of ships.

By the time of the Battle of Scheveningen, the last of the war, the Dutch had begun using similar line tactics. The battle was decisive, and it ultimately ended in a tactical victory for the English, but a strategic victory for the Dutch with the English blockade of Dutch ports being lifted (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 41 – 42).

Between the First and Second Anglo-Dutch Wars, the English embraced the line-ahead. While it enhanced firepower and order within the fleet, it also complicated command-and-control. Among the questions raised were how to command the line and how to have the flagship in the center communicate effectively? The line of battle could become so long as to go over the horizon or depend on visibility. What if the opposing commander wasn’t cooperative? What if the enemy tried to maneuver to their advantage? What if the opposing fleet was downwind and chose to disengage? The solution came in two forms. The first was to use a system of visual signals, and the second was to establish a coherent doctrine. Since visual signals were too primitive at the time, doctrine won out. New fighting instructions immediately prior to the Second Anglo-Dutch War didn’t specify the line-ahead, but they did specify an order of battle and for captains to attempt to maintain a line during battle and not chase after enemy ships or stop to aid disabled ships. It’s worth noting that the Royal Navy was still in the process of developing a disciplined officer corps, and experience during the First Anglo-Dutch War often saw merchant captains break formation to loot disabled ships. The fighting instructions were meant to prevent that (Palmer, 2005, p. 51 – 54).

Both the English and the Dutch were skillfully using the line of battle when the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars rolled around. English experience favored a long single line, preferably to windward of the enemy. While it worked well at concentrating the firepower of the fleet, an entire fleet in a single battle line (some 100 ships or more) was miles long and it could take up to an hour for the last ship in the rear to reach the point where the van had been. Furthermore, depending on the wind, the van may be unable to assist any ship to its rear (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 42). Dutch tactics during the Second Anglo-Dutch war became more linear but were still not quite a line-ahead formation. Ships were grouped in twos and threes which created a defense in depth and allowed for the repulsion of single English ships. However, many consider the English line-ahead to be superior in offense and defense (Palmer, 2005, 51).

Giuseppe Fioravanzo (1979) identifies the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665 as an example of two roughly equal fleets engaging each other in parallel columns and in strict adherence to the formation of the line. Through aggressive maneuvering, the British were able to sow confusion in the Dutch line after Admiral Cortenaar was killed and his ship drifted away from the line. This allowed the British to split the Dutch line and achieve a victory (p. 89 – 91). Palmer (2005) notes that the English believed the victory should’ve been more decisive. Split amongst the English officers, some favored formality, while others favored aggressiveness (p. 55).

While the Dutch had no formal fighting instructions, they had refined their tactics during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. By the Third Anglo-Dutch War, they were using battle line tactics and had specific orders of battle (Palmer, 2005, 60). Fighting instructions and the line-ahead continued to evolve during this time in the Royal Navy. More powerful ships were placed ahead of and behind the central flagships for greater protection and massed firepower. Ships with the most senior and trusted captains were placed at the ends of the line where most maneuvers began. Palmer (2005) writes that commanders, frustrated with doctrine and unwilling to place trust in subordinates, began to look to new technology to micromanage engagements. In 1711, commanders began issuing their own separate signal books. The use of visual signals marked an important evolution in naval command-and-control, but a further 50 years would pass before truly serviceable systems reached the fleet (p. 89).

By the 1700s, the line of battle had become standard practice and rather unwieldy as a large formation. The biggest problem was that the Permanent Fighting Instructions pounded the formation, tactics, and associated flag signals into the heads of admirals to the point where it went beyond doctrine and into the realm of dogma. The result was nearly a century of frustration in the Royal Navy where commanders could no longer develop creative tactics in response to changes in warfare and enemies (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 42 – 43).

Palmer (2005) identifies four areas of tactical improvement that occurred following 1720. First, improvements in tactical proficiency improved the value of the battle line. It was found that Royal Navy ships in the latter part of the 18th century were able to maintain more than twice the rate of fire than French or Spanish ships. Hence, they achieved greater firepower with the use of the line. Second, other effective battle line tactics, such as doubling the line (occasionally attempted but rarely successful), concentration by narrowing the distance between ships, and breaking the enemy line (considered the surest path to victory) were examined. Third, by the time of the American Revolution, improved signal books began to supplant the Permanent Fighting Instructions. Fourth, when a fleet holds a clear advantage, it was found to be unnecessary to adhere to the battle line, and could actually reduce the scope of a victory. Thus, when presented with a clear advantage, commanders could abandon the line and order a general chase. Palmer further opines that problems with naval warfare between 1720 – 1763 were caused less by an adherence to the battle line or fighting instructions, but more by increasingly centralized command-and-control (p. 91 – 92).

With the conclusion of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, France gradually built up its navy and naval institutions by relying on scientific analysis and study. For example, Anne-Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville, a 47-year veteran naval officer who saw action at Sole Bay and Palermo under Duquesne, took steps to gradually turn the French fleet into a fighting force. During campaigns against the Barbary Corsairs, the French navy issued printed sailing and fighting instructions that embraced the English concept of the line and the division of the fleet into van, center, and rear squadrons. The instructions were very comprehensive which the English wouldn’t rival for another 90 years (Palmer, 2005, 68 – 69). Similarly, (as previously mentioned) Paul Hoste’s treatise on naval warfare advocated for the line-ahead and the restriction of ships of the line to the line. Ultimately, it was the first written work on naval warfare at a time when science and principles of the Enlightenment were being applied to the military (Palmer, 2005, p. 79).

Fioravanzo (1979) further identifies the battles of Coromandel in 1782, and of course, Trafalgar in 1805 as representative of skillful uses of the line of battle. Coromandel showed the French operating as a “fleet in being” and concentrating their attack on a part of the British line. Trafalgar stands as the great British victory owing to Nelson’s leadership and showing the British fleet breaking the Franco-Spanish line in several places (p. 91 – 102).

Criticism & Support of the Adoption of the Line-Ahead

There is a debate among scholars about the decision to adopt the battle line as a tactic and its subsequent efficacy. Historians like Alfred T. Mahan and Clark Reynolds see the adoption of the battle line as a huge advance in tactics and English tactical superiority. However, it’s been noted that Mahan’s study doesn’t cover the First Anglo-Dutch war and only focuses on later wars where the battle line was successful. Russel Weigley argues that the imposed fighting Instructions were meant to address command-and-control issues, but their rigidity stymied the development of the naval officer corps. Specifically, the fighting instructions stultified the growth of tactical skills as distinguished from seamanship, and the professional growth at higher levels was founded upon techniques in operations and strategy. Thus, they reduced the fighting power of the fleet (as cited in Palmer, 2005, p. 61 – 62). Others argue that, while Weigley’s argument may be true for the 18th Century, the English experience during the Anglo-Dutch Wars was the opposite. The English had to develop doctrine because earlier linear tactics created problems with commanding the fleet. Therefore, it makes no sense that the English, Dutch, and French would adopt the line-ahead if it lessened combat effectiveness. Battles during the First Anglo-Dutch War (before the line was adopted) were indecisive. At Gabbard Bank, the line was first used with success and it was adopted to increase combat effectiveness despite the complications of command-and-control. Arguably, the English adopted the line due to experience born out of battle, and not because of the advantages it offered in formations. As naval officers improved over the next century, only then was individual initiative discouraged by the constraints of the line (Palmer, 2005, p. 62).

Furthermore, in Palmer’s (2005) opinion, Blake, Deane, and Monck need not be blamed for the adoption of the battle line. They were army officers, and Cromwell’s soldiers dominated the upper ranks of the navy at the time. Moreover, there was constant experimentation with formations in both the army and the navy (p. 63). The Anglo-Dutch Wars, being purely maritime wars, were atypical. English and Dutch commanders did seek decisive battles, but the failure of their ability to reach a decisive battle was not because of the line-ahead formation. Still, the English navy achieved better results when it fought in a line-ahead than when it fought a melee. Unwillingness to abandon a tactical system that did not yield immediate results is not necessarily an example of professional stultification. Rather, it shows that the leaders understood the slow, indecisive nature of naval warfare and accepted the risks inherent in the melee battle (Palmer, 2005, p. 64 – 65).

Hughes and Girrier (2018) argue that the line of battle was appropriate for the times and note that it was adopted to improve coordination and concentrate firepower in multiple columns. Through this, the fleet could be brought into action more quickly and provide mutual support for each other. The problems occurred when it became etched into the stone tablets of the fighting instructions. Subsequently, commanders were creatively handcuffed and forced into forming a single battle line when risk-taking and other, perhaps more aggressive, tactics would’ve been more suitable, especially if the enemy refused to fight (p. 47). Good training and seamanship allowed a battle line to tightly space itself and better concentrate its firepower in contrast with a fleet that had a disorganized or thinly spread line (p. 35 – 36).

There’s much more that has been written about the battle line during this time period. The use of the battle line persisted throughout the Age of Sail. Born out of a need to assert command-and-control and to mass firepower, it turned into a tactic through which myopic eyes viewed naval warfare. It was only through the creative thinking and leadership of several admirals (Nelson being one of the most famous) that kept it from being completely useless.

The Line in the Age of Steam

The use of the battle line didn’t end with the Age of Sail and the dawn of the Age of Steam, rather, it was adapted to suit the needs of changing technology. When equipped with steam engines fleets were no longer dependent on wind conditions and could quickly close with an enemy fleet regardless of being on the windward or leeward side. In addition, steam engines allowed for faster speeds which created new difficulties to station-keeping within a battle line and narrowed the window of decision-making for commanders.

Given that there were no major fleet engagements during the Crimean War and American Civil War, there was little doctrinal or tactical development beyond the improved technology such as the screw propeller, armor, new ordnance, and steam power. As the American Civil War raged, European navies struggled to develop new tactics and doctrine for steam-powered, armored ships. Mid-19th century manuals still included the line-ahead, but they also had line-abreast formations akin to those in the Age of Galleys (like the wedge or inverted V). Without the need for wind, elaborate maneuvers were devised to allow the changing of course while either maintaining or changing formation. As early as the 1860s, there was recognition that larger arcs of fire and ranges made crossing the T an effective maneuver (Palmer, 2005, p. 217 – 218).

Battle of Lissa, 1866

Initial disposition of the Austrian (red) and Italian (blue) fleets at the Battle of Lissa (1866). (solid colored ships are armored, others are wooden steamships). The [Erzherzog] Ferdinand Max is the flagship of the Austrian fleet. The Principe di Carignano is the flagship in the van of the Italian battle line. Albini is supporting the landing forces and played no major part in the battle. By Rocco Pier Luigi – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=692366

In particular, the Battle of Lissa in 1866 demonstrated the maneuvering potential of steam power, reintroduced the ram as a naval weapon, and showed that a single battle line was no longer an effective way of concentrating firepower. During the battle, the smaller Austrian fleet, with their armored ships leading in a V formation, charged at the Italian fleet who were in a single battle line and crossing their T. It was easier for the Austrian fleet to utilize its speed and ramming power to focus on different portions of the Italian line. Ultimately, the Austrian fleet managed to break the Italian line and force a melee which resulted in a number of ships ramming enemy vessels. By the conclusion of the battle, the Austrians were victorious (Grant, 2008, p. 219). Fioravanzo (1979) opines that the Battle of Lissa wasn’t decided by the Austrians use of the ram, but rather by the Italians failure at command-and-control. Despite having a superior force, the Italians lost the battle because Persano failed to adequately communicate his battle plan prior to entering combat, and instead relied solely on signals to convey his intentions. Additionally, he failed to utilize the superior maneuverability of the column compared to the unwieldy Austrian wedge formations and didn’t pursue the enemy despite only losing two ships and still having a superior force (p. 145). Similarly, Palmer (2005) notes that the Battle of Lissa seemed to confirm the use of the ram, and in some quarters, it became the principal naval tactic and influenced battleship construction for the rest of the century. However, he also notes that the superior nature of armor over guns at the time made ramming attractive. Finally, while the Battle of Lissa showed ramming was difficult, sinking ships with gunfire was even harder. The more important lesson to come out of the Battle of Lissa was command-and-control. Tegetthoff was decisive, in contrast to Persano, and he demonstrated the continued validity of decentralized command (p. 222 – 223).

The Battle of Lissa occurred during a period of transition in naval technology where ships used coal-fired steam power plants and yet were still built with sails for strategic mobility to offset the need for coaling stations. Indeed, it stands as something of a unique case study in naval warfare. It’s also been noted armor had superseded guns in technological superiority during this time period. Thus, the ram was seen as a viable weapon given that speed, armor, and mobility were, for a brief period, outclassing the rate of fire and effective range of guns. Following the battle, there was substantial debate as to how the battle line could continue to be used in light of the Austrian success with the ram. While many ideas were thrown around, the utility of the ram would ultimately come to an end with the introduction of the torpedo, which was effectively a small, unmanned, explosive ram with a motor providing an extended range. By the 1900s, naval guns had caught up to armor and posed a significant threat again in terms of range and destructive potential. Still, the line of battle continued to see use in the 20th century (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 51 – 55).

Restoration of the Battle Line

While the ram had a brief resurgence in usage and tactical debate in the latter half of the 1800s, the line of battle certainly wasn’t forgotten about. The Battle of Tsushima in 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, stands as a rare example of a decisive naval engagement where both fleets used line of battle tactics. Although, other factors contributed to the Japanese victory, such as better reconnaissance, wireless communications, gunnery, training, and ship speed.

The early years of the 20th century saw rapid developments in battleships, fire control, and the use of big guns (generally 10″ and up). Now, ships could effectively engage targets out to 15,000 yards in clear conditions (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 58). The following illustration clearly shows the difference in the effective range of gunfire between two battle lines of different eras.

Effective range of gunfire compared, 1750 and 1910 (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 59).

The benefits of using the line-ahead as a tactical formation took on new importance with the range and firing arcs of big gun turrets. In contrast to the Age of Sail, where guns were arranged vertically on ships of the line, battleships with turrets could concentrate the fire from an entire column on the enemy van when the T was crossed. Yet, the line of battle continued to be the best formation for ease of control and concentration of fire (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 58 – 62).

Three squadrons (with respective flagships in the van) move from a cruising formation into a battle line (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 63).

By the time of WWI, the need for reconnaissance ahead of the fleet meant that Nelson’s Trafalgar plan of “the order of sailing is the order of battle” was no longer viable. However, there was still a need for cohesion, communication, station-keeping, and rapid deployment of the fleet into a battle line from cruising conditions. It was found advantageous for the cruising formation to consist of a series of columns steaming in line abreast that could rapidly shift into a battle line. The columns needed to be properly spaced so that their turn would fit them within the line at the correct intervals. Moving from a cruising formation into a battle line required excellent seamanship skills and was an irrevocable action. Thus, the fleet needed to be in the proper order while cruising before transitioning into the line. Even with the benefits of steam engines, a fleet could travel at no more than 2 – 3 knots less than the slowest ships in the line. This allowed for a 20% margin so the ships in the rear could maintain station. Forming up and keeping the line closed up while maneuvering together still presented formidable challenges (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 63).

Fleet Cruising Disposition. The scouting line is ahead of a support force of battlecruisers (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 65).

Although the main body of the fleet would be cruising in line abreast, significant attention had to be given to reconnaissance ahead of the fleet. At the Battle of Jutland, the British and German fleets committed 20 – 25% of their heavy firepower and 35 – 45% of their cruisers and destroyers to the scouting forces. The scouting line was permitted to fall back on the supporting force of battlecruisers when the enemy was sighted and the scouting force was to augment the battle line once the battle was joined in earnest. The idea of the scouting line was to cover an area of 35 degrees on either bow of the main force from which it could detect any approach of enemy forces. That said, it’s clear that this cruising disposition was very cumbersome to turn or otherwise reorient to a different axis of advance (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 64).

Giuseppe Fioravanzo (1979) shows a similar cruising disposition for the fleet, although it’s noted that this was during an era when systematic air reconnaissance wasn’t widely used. It’s also noted that the main force steaming in several columns line abreast provided the following advantages:

  • Provided the smallest target to submarines.
  • Required the smallest number of escorting destroyers. (A single column would require twice as many destroyers as ships in the column, whereas the line abreast formation would require as many destroyers as ships, plus one.)
  • Permitted rapid deployment of the fleet into a battle line.

Another issue was where to put the flagship within the battle line? Studies of the battles of Yalu and Tsushima concluded that the flagship should be placed in the van. In this way, the fleet admiral wouldn’t need signals and the ships could simply follow the leader. Problems, however, arose any time the column needed to reverse direction because any simultaneous turn of all ships in the column would need to be signaled ahead of time. The Battle of Jutland had columns of more than twenty battleships for both the British and German fleets which were simply too long to be lead from the van. A commander would have no idea of what was happening to the rear of the line some six to eight miles behind him. As a consequence, both Jellicoe and Scheer positioned their flagships in the center of the column. While this sacrificed ease of maneuverability, it was best for maintaining cohesive control and a clearer picture of the action (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 64 – 65). Again, this echoes problems faced by naval commanders in the Age of Sail of where to place the flagship so command-and-control would be most efficient.

While capital ships would form a more traditional battle line, the aforementioned emergence of the torpedo give rise to the threat of torpedo boats, and eventually, torpedo boat destroyers (to eventually simply be called destroyers) which would carry their own torpedoes into battle (Fioravanzo, 1979, p. 108 – 109). With the potential for charging squadrons of destroyers to fire their torpedoes on the battle line, it was planned that destroyers and their flotilla leaders would form a screen for the battle line forward of the van and abaft the rear on the engaged side during a battle. Of course, actual experience during the Battle of Jutland showed a far more chaotic situation (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 67 – 68).

(Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 68)

The battle line continued to see use throughout WWI and continued to be debated about during the interwar years. The U.S. Navy’s 1924 manual of “war instructions” included many lessons learned from the British during WWI and Jutland. They focused on aggressively closing with and concentrating firepower on a portion of the enemy line. Ten years later, their instructions further incorporated using carrier aircraft with the bombers focusing on hitting the enemy battle line, detached forces, or carriers (Palmer, 2005, p. 255 – 257). The battle line would see use in WWII in several battles. However, due to developing technology and naval aviation in WWII, virtually every major type of warship saw its role changed from its originally intended use (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 79). Fioravanzo (1979) notes that the threat of aircraft necessitated greater dispersion or space in formations with a distance of at least 1,000 meters between ships being required (p. 176).

(Fioravanzo, 1979, p. 177).

While the column arguably had decreased importance, it didn’t cease to have utility during WWII. A number of battles in the Solomons had cruisers and destroyers steaming in line-ahead formation, likely because of ease in station-keeping and formation handling given the rapid turnover in American commanders. Similarly, the line of battle featured in the Battle of Surigao Strait during Leyte Gulf where the U.S. battleships formed a line and crossed the T with the approaching Japanese force. (Although, whether or not the column was a crucial factor in the American victory during this battle is questionable.) Thus, the battle line continued to have utility for its ease of tactical thinking, however, by the end of WWII, it had become largely irrelevant for naval warfare (Hughes & Girrier, 2018, p. 62).

Fioravano (1979) argues that a column could still have some flexible application as a formation for modern vessels armed with missiles, however, the requirements for defense against nuclear, air, or submarine attack would necessitate the appropriate dispersion or concentration of the formation. Additionally, the battle line is useless for carrier strike groups given the need for clear space ahead of and behind the carrier to launch and recover aircraft. Carrier groups instead adopt a circular formation (or at least roughly circular with escorts formed around the carrier(s)) to facilitate flight operations and provide anti-air and anti-submarine defense* (p. 224 – 225).

*Fioravanzo (1979) also notes that merchant convoys can also be arranged in compact columns. However, they’re not warships, so the tactical benefits of the line don’t really apply. Still, maintaining close intervals would allow an efficient use of escort vessels which would perform antisubmarine and anti-air screening (p. 225).

Conclusion

The line of battle is noted for appearing at a time in history when naval warfare was changing and required more tactical cohesion and concentration of naval firepower. Accomplishing its goal of creating a simple system for sailing ships of the line to group together, the battle line slowly ossified into tactical dogma within the Royal Navy. With the introduction of steam propulsion and longer ranged, turreted guns, the line continued to see use as a method of concentrating firepower and was gradually adapted to meet the changes in technology. Arguably, by the time of WWII, the battle line was used more as a method of keeping forces together than as a means of focusing fire on an enemy. Although, as with anything, there were exceptions, and naval officers, no doubt, had been rigorously trained in such classic tactics. Thus, the battle line is cemented in naval history as a classic naval tactic and formation brought about by the need to simplify command-and-control problems, and to concentrate firepower. The revolutionary change in weaponry, sensors, and aviation in WWII saw the demise of the line of battle as a standard tactic, but there’s no denying that it had its utility. In the post-WWII era of missiles, the utility of the battle line is debatable, but naval formations have changed to center around carrier strike groups and the defense against different threats from different weapons. It can be argued that currently, the decision to disperse or concentrate a naval force is more important.

Suggested Further Reading

There’s quite a bit more than can be said about the historical usage and development of the line of battle. For further reading on the historical development of the line of battle, the associated fighting instructions, and flag signal code in the Royal Navy, I recommend reading Michael Palmer’s Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century. For a more in-depth examination of the line and its specific tactical usage, I recommend Giuseppe Fioravanzo’s textbook on naval tactics, A History of Naval Tactical Thought.

References

Fioravanzo, G. (1979). A History of Naval Tactical Thought (A.W. Holst, Trans.). Naval Institute Press.

Grant, R.G. (Eds.). (2008). Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare. D.K.

Hughes, W. P. & Girrier, R.P. (2018). Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (3rd Ed.). Naval Institute Press.

O’Neill, R. (Eds.). (2003). Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World. Salamander Books.

Palmer, M.A. (2005). Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century. Harvard University Press.

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