13

At the Battle of Sluys in 1340, the French fleet operated:

in accordance with the usual medieval tactics of a fleet fighting on the defensive. Quiéret and Béhuchet formed their forces into three or four lines chained together, with a few of the largest stationed in front as outposts.

The limitations of this tactic seem fairly obvious – severely restricted manoeuvrability – but, according this article on Medieval Maritime Warfare,

There are multiple contemporary accounts of ships being linked together with chains or cables in order to ensure formation integrity

Tying ships together was also used by, for example, the Vikings, to create a fighting platform (i.e. naval battles were often actually land battles fought at sea).

I’m thinking that one reason this tactic of tying ships together died out was the increasing use of cannons on ships, the first use in Europe believed to have been at the Battle of Arnemuiden in 1338.

When was the last battle in which ships were tied together?

The answer could be for anywhere in the world but it should be a battle involving at least 20 ships tied together. Note that this question refers only to ships of the same fleet being tied together – the use of grappling irons for boarding does not count.

As a supplementary question, were ships always tied together side by side or were they sometimes (for defensive purposes) tied bow to stern?

14

During the Battle of Cochin in 1504, a Calicut fleet consisting of some 160 vessels attacked the numerically much fewer, but technologically vastly more advanced Portuguese force.

Both sides lashed their ships together. From Wikipedia, on the Portuguese side, Duarte Pacheco Pereira:

. . . ordered the long sharpened poles drilled deep mid-channel and across the length of the ford, a makeshift stockade to block the passage of the infantry. He subsequently ordered the ships tied to each other, and to the banks (with iron cords, so that they could not be easily cut and set adrift). The ships were set with the broadsides facing the shores.

On the Calicut side, Elacanol of Edapalli prepared:

. . . [a] vanguard led by 110 well-armed and well-shielded paraus, tied together, followed by some 100 boat transports, packed with soldiers for the grapple . . . most peculiar of all, a series of 'floating castles' (invented by a certain 'Cogeale', an 'Arab of Edapalli'). Essentially, a 'floating castle' was a wooden siege tower, about 18 hands tall, with heavily reinforced sides, capable of carrying 40 armed men, mounted on two paraus lashed together. There were eight such castles, mounted on 16 boats, tied to each other, forming a single imposing line.

A paraus being was a oars and sails powered warship, comparable to the fusta.


Note that linking vessels up was not really an unknown tactic even late into the Age of Sail. However, as the question noted, chaining ships together in the style of Sluys became wildly impractical with the advent of ship borne cannon. Sluys was in large part a land battle, with armies moving on what was basically wooden islands. In later engagements, the ships were spaced too far apart for this kind of action.

In the Battle of the Nile, for example, the French ships of the line were 160 yards apart (Wikipedia has an illustration of the deployments). The French were supposed to string cables between each other, bow to stern, in order to prevent the English ships from cutting through their line, though evidently this wasn't fully completed. This can indeed be described as "chained together", but it bears little resemblance to the medieval tactic.

In general, the importance of the broadside meant it's difficult to imagine ships of the line being positioned, let alone tied, side to side, either defensively or offensively. For contrast, the Mediterranean galley fleets of the Late Middle Ages mainly relied on crossbow fire followed by boarding. They were thus often linked in a line abreast, even for attacking, in order to maintain a cohesive formation. In the case of fighting platforms such as those at Sluys, chaining ships side by side would've been the logical first choice.

  • Interesting edit. I hadn't considered how far apart ships were when chained for defensive purposes (as opposed to a fighting platform when presumably one would usually be able to hop from one to the other). Was there any 'norm' for distance for defensive purposes or do we not know? – Lars Bosteen Dec 26 '17 at 21:54
  • 3
    @LarsBosteen Well, in the cannon age, all ships would've been in a line, so as to make the most of their broadsides. If they were to be linked together, it would almost necessarily have been bow to stern rather than side by side. – Semaphore Dec 26 '17 at 22:40
14

First contender: Battle of the Nile, 1 to 3 August 1798:

Alerted to this fact, the Royal Navy gave Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson fifteen ships of the line with orders to locate and destroy the French fleet supporting Napoleon's forces. On August 1, 1798, following weeks futile searching, Nelson finally located the French transports at Alexandria. Though disappointed that the French fleet was not present, Nelson soon found it anchored just to the east in Aboukir Bay.

The French commander, Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys D’Aigalliers, anticipating a British attack, had anchored his thirteen ships of the line in line of battle with shallow, shoal water to port and the open sea to starboard. This deployment was intended to force the British to attack the strong French center and rear while permitting Brueys' van to utilize the prevailing northeasterly winds to mount a counterattack once the action commenced. With sunset fast approaching, Brueys did not believe the British would risk a night battle in unknown, shallow waters.

As a further precaution he ordered that the ships of the fleet be chained together to prevent the British from breaking the line.

Although to admit, not enough ships tied together for your criteria.

But that seems to be a relatively common tactic back then:

The essence of a cutting-out attack is surprise. The French, having been attacked once, were on their guard. Their vessels were chained together and to the shore, and not one was taken or burned. (During action at Boulogne, from Terry Coleman: "The Nelson Touch. The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson", Oxford University Press: Oxford New York, 2002, p271.)

Much was made of the chains, as if their use had been unfair. Nelson said that the moment the French had the audacity to unchain their vessels they would be captured or sent to the bottom. St Vincent told Nelson, 'It is not given to us to command success' - exactly what he said after Tenerife, when a second attack on the same target also failed. (p 272)

  • It should be 13, as you quote says. D’Aigalliers only had that many ships of the line. – Semaphore Dec 26 '17 at 21:02
  • Not 20, as you acknowledged, but worth posting as this is a much later date than I thought would be the case so +1. – Lars Bosteen Dec 26 '17 at 21:16
  • 1
    @ LanglangC Doesn't the website offer you a live preview while you compose a post already? @LarsBosteen Well, you weren't really wrong. it's a completely different kind of "chained up" compared to Sluys, which I'm fairly sure would've been completely suicidal, as you could imagine. – Semaphore Dec 26 '17 at 21:49
  • 2
    I'm not sure that Brueys order for the French ships to be cabled together at the Nile was actually executed. Descriptions of the battle state that Brueys also ordered his ships to "put springs to their cables", which would allow them to swing the ship around the anchor (to change the angle of fire). If the ships had been also chained/cabled together this maneuver would have been much more difficult to achieve. Either way, few cables appear to have been used in the battle, which the British (and the Leander especially) took advantage of. – Steve Bird Dec 27 '17 at 1:44
  • 1
    In the case of Boulogne, the vessels in question were the small ships and large boats of Napoleon's intended invasion fleet. The chains there were less of a battle tactic and more a component of a giant anti-theft device. – Steve Bird Dec 27 '17 at 1:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.