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List of fireships of the Royal Navy.

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Fireships served in the Royal Navy over a period of several centuries. The earliest fireships – ships filled with combustible and flammable materials and explosives and sent into lines of enemy ships to attempt to set them on fire – were small merchant vessels deployed in large fleet actions, such as by Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada at the Battle of Gravelines in 1588. Fire was a major hazard on the wooden warships of the time, which carried large quantities of flammable and explosive materials into battle. Both sides used fireships in a number of engagements during the Anglo–Spanish War, with varying levels of effectiveness. Fireships reappeared in unconventional forms during the English Civil War, and were used in earnest during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, particularly to great effect in 1666 during Holmes's Bonfire. Successes such as the burning of the Royal James at the Battle of Solebay in 1672 caused considerable interest in the application of such vessels, eventually resulting in the construction of purpose-built ships.] Interest in the fireship declined during the eighteenth century. Though new vessels continued to be taken into service, they did not play a significant role in either the Seven Years' War or the American War of Independence.

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The Battle of the Basque Roads

There was a resurgence in the use of fireships during the 1790s during the wars with France, and they were deployed with some success by Thomas Cochrane at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809, but they were steadily supplanted by new methods of war, such as heated shot, torpedoes and mines.

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French fireship at anchorage. The full-resolution image shows details specific to fireships, notably the exit door between the two aftmost gunports; the chain securing an escape boat; an aperture below exit door to light a fuse; and grappling hooks on the yardarms.

The vessels employed by the navy in the fireship role were very varied. They were initially often converted warships or merchant vessels between 60 and 90 feet in length. Despite their rating, most served as sloops or frigates, only being fitted with combustible materials when there was the intention to expend them. The ships used were generally purchased and converted vessels, as it was not considered cost-effective to build new ships with the intention of burning them when a cheaper option existed. Purpose-built fireships were therefore a rarity, though some classes were built during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ship's boats were used for a similar purpose, carrying parties of men with combustible materials over to enemy ships, often while they were at anchor. New methods of attack were being pioneered by the early nineteenth century.

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Fireships were an archaic, but effective, threat to the cross-Channel transportation of armies, especially if timed prior to the departure from Boulogne and other harbours.

The Raid on Boulogne in 1804 used fireships, but also new devices designed by Robert Fulton. By the time of the attack at the Basque Roads, fireships were being used to fire rockets as well. Eventually the inherent problems involved in deploying fireships effectively, such as the difficulty of manoeuvring effectively to catch an enemy warship, and the development of new forms of attack, led to the fireship falling out of use. While they served with the Royal Navy fireships tended to be given names associated with fire, for example, names of volcanoes.Examples included Spitfire, Torch, Vulcan, Furnace, Aetna and Vesuvius.

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Fireships in the Hudson River. Night attack on H.M. ships Phoenix and Rose.

The outbreak of war with the American colonies in 1775 led to the purchase of a range of merchant vessels for conversion, though most spent their careers employed as sloops. These were supplemented by the conversion of twelve existing navy sloops. A significant development during this period was the reintroduction of purpose-built fire ships to the navy, the first for seventy years. The Tisiphone class was introduced during the later stages of the war, and all of the vessels of the class were still in service by the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars a decade later, though most had served as sloops, or been officially re-rated as sloops at some point in their careers.

Purchased vessels (1777–1782)

Converted warships (1775–1779)

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French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815)

In addition to the ships of the Tisiphone class, the Admiralty expanded its fleet with the acquisition in 1794 of a number of merchant vessels. Most served as small gunvessels, and none were expended as fireships. Another twenty-two small vessels were purchased in 1804, though only four were expended in this role. About this time the Admiralty ordered a six-ship class of fireships. The ships of the resulting Thais class were employed in the sloop role, and were re-rated as such in 1808. They eventually became sixth rate frigates in 1817. Another twenty-one ships were acquired in 1809 for the attack on the French at the Basque Roads, with all of them being expended there.

Purchased vessels



Vessels used at the Battle of the Basque Roads:

  • Adventure
  • Agenoria
  • Alicia
  • Apollo
  • Ceres
  • George
  • Harmony
  • Hercules
  • Mary
  • Merchant
  • Ocean
  • Pomona
  • Sally
  • Sally
  • Sisters
  • Sophia
  • Thomas
  • Tiber
  • Triptolemus
  • William
  • Zephyr


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