A tale of two ships and the cause of freedom


The UK and the US navies both have eighteenth century wooden sailing ships still in commission. HMS Victory in dry dock at Portsmouth is the icon of the British fleet, a constant reminder of Trafalgar and the glory days of Nelson. USS Constitution, refurbished and afloat in Boston harbour, is the frigate that the British navy could not sink or capture, affectionately known as Ā “old Ironsides”. SheĀ  hadĀ  a distinguished career as one of the USA’s first group of six powerful Ā naval vessels.

The stories of both, paradoxically, are the story of freedom in their own countries. Victory is the most recognised symbol of Britain’s resistance to Napoleon. Britain fought for the small nations and independent peoples of Europe against the French dictator who wished to place all under his rule and continental system. Victory guided by Nelson led oneĀ of the two lines of British warships into battle against the more heavily armed and formidable allied fleet of France and Spain off Cape Trafalgar. They achieved the most stunning victory in a battleship encounter from the age of sail. Britain truly ruled the waves. She confirmed her pre-eminence at sea, by showing her ability to defeat two great powers Ā at the same time. The victory meant Napoleon could not invade Britain with the Grand Army and complete his eclipse of independence andĀ self determination Ā in Europe.

The USS Constitution claimed to be a frigate. Her keel length, however, was almost the same as that of Victory. Her beam was narrower. Quoted as a 44 gun ship, compared to Victory’s 104, there are other references to her carrying 55 guns on some missions. Victory was 50% heavier than Constitution,but Constitution had sides as thick as 24 inches at the waterline. More importantly, some of her timbers were in American live oak, which is stronger at resisting cannon fire than English oak. As a result, when in wartime exchanges with British ships, the cannon balls fired against her either bounced off or lodged in the sides of the ship, refusing to penetrate fully.

Constitution successfully fought and captured two British frigates, both less powerful than herself, in separate ship actions. She also defeated two smaller English warshipsĀ  together. She was finally retired with a perfect record of engagements with the enemy. She helped secure the American revolution. She showed that Ā even at the time of Britain’s maritime supremacy thatĀ the USA Ā had at least one warship which could evade Britain’s most powerful ships, and defeat any British ship smaller than her. This was news to the British navy, which was used to winning against the odds in actions they willingly undertook. The British did succeed in capturing the smaller Chesapeake in 1813, and the powerful but damaged President in 1815, two ofĀ Constitution’sĀ five Ā sister naval vessels of the first US navy.

TheĀ  new Republic was to demonstrate a great capacity to wage war and fight for freedom. USS Constitution gave the fledgeling republic a sense of power and capability. The sailors and gunners of Constitution showed huge skill and bravery. They posed a challenge to the crews of British warships far greater than the typical French or Spanish vessel. These defenders of freedom practised sailing and gunnery more, and were good at both.Ā  President was damaged before the final action by sailing error.

Ā Similarly, the heavily outgunned British fleet at Trafalgar never doubted its ability to win. The British only had 27 battleships with 2318 guns, to the Allies 33 battleships and 2872 guns. The British just believed that their skill at sailing and gunnery would win the day, as it did.


  1. Mike Stallard
    June 10, 2012

    Ah the Constitution!
    I went onto it and, when I was frisked, the alarm went off causing great consternation.

    What is it? The tree of freedom need to be constantly watered with our blood? Something like that……..

  2. lifelogic
    June 10, 2012

    Freedom – alas we are now not even free, in our own houses, to decide what windows, boilers, heating, electrics, lighting and insulation we want. Even after we have paid 70%+ of our money to the state – for virtually nothing in return.

    Freedom sounds very appealing how could we get some going again?

  3. John Wrexham
    June 10, 2012

    It is always good to see an MP with an interest and knowledge of history after what happened with Blair and his Year Zero approach to Britain. Throughout modern history, British governments have always been concerned that no one power achieved dominance in Europe whether that was Charles V, Louis XIV or Napoleon. It would be interesting to read your thoughts on whether further European integration may be just as damaging to our interests if we are outside as if we were inside. Perhaps No.10 should be encouraging as many European countries as possible to choose a different path to ever closer union??

    1. David Kelly
      June 10, 2012

      There’s no chance of Cameron encouraging Europe’s governments to reject closer union. He’s after as cushy a Brussels non-job as he can find once he’s kicked out of Downing Street in 2015.

      1. BobE
        June 10, 2012

        As did Mr Kinnock and wife.

  4. Bazman
    June 10, 2012

    In the 1990’s at the peak VSEL, as it was then known, employed over 15k people building military vessels. Now that figure stands at less than 5k. This work is highly technical on the scale of space exploration. As military shipbuilding has always been and using labourers barely able to write their names as well. In this industry costs can be on externalised so far and even with the Trident system using American technology run into tens of billions of pounds. A submarine based nuclear weapons system ain’t going to be cheap. France has her own nuclear submarine technology and it could be argued a reason why taxation in France is high.
    When these workers are made redundant to to more useful work such as taxi driving and gardening/car repairs on the black, their skills wane and often they do see themselves as being somehow released from this often difficult stressful work on average wages. The Town is supported by the shipyard and so the rest of the economy suffers. The workforce being unable to find other work in their locality plead sick and the younger ones leave to do more important work in the south or for better wages in Australia. Leading to a skills shortage which is in reality a wages shortage.The town follows the fortunes of the shipyard. “Hello mate we have just got an order for another sub could you come in for a few years?” “Sorry I have got a bit bogged down in widget building in the south as well as this living thing, you’ll just have to ram it.”
    The navel dockyards have been run down for decades by successive governments and blaming the workforce won’t work this time fantasists. Jingoistic rhetoric of great navel battles where often won in the battle was won in the workshops and docks.
    The astute class submarine which sets world standards was not built on the cheap by a foreign owned utility company employing minimum wage East Europeans, though I am sure they did their best to employ them and get round the security issues.

  5. Martyn
    June 10, 2012

    Back in the days of “the wooden walls of England” and our armies, once the government had decided on a course of action, the navy and army set sail for wherever and did whatever was necessary without governmental interference. They were very often incommunicado for months on end, so the government of the day didn’t know the outcome of the action they’d launched until weeks or several months after it was concluded.

    Today, the Prime Minister if he wished could pick up a phone and talk to Cpl Bloggs leading his squad engaged in a firefight in Afghanistan. That doesn’t happen, but it could and moving that concept higher up the command chain, it means that no commander in the field can make a decision without checking that it is politically correct and looked upon favourably all the way up the command chain to the highest level.

    The courage, fortitude, skill, determination of our armed forces has not changed since the days of Nelson, but they can no longer really call their lives their own without intereference by the government and, worse, an army of H&S and other jobsworths wanting to put their pennyworth into the equation. Not to mention the EU and other nations.

  6. rd
    June 10, 2012

    Shame that the second new carrier, HMS Prince of Wales will be used for spares essentialy, and that our Government has taken a cheap option on the F35-B option. Shame also about the SDSR… Continuing to support the Party I have always supported is hard.

  7. oap
    June 10, 2012

    The 50 gun (24 pounders) Chesapeake was defeated by the 38 gun (18 pounders) Shannon. According to N A M Rodger, this result was achieved because the Captain of the British frigate regularly practised his ship in gunnery and thus fired accurately by the standards of the day. This was coupled with a failure by the Captain of the Chesapeake to sling his top sails when clearing for action. In consequence an early broadside brought down the Chesapeake`s yard, the ship luffed up and was then repeatedly raked with fire. It was all over very quickly – most of the Us officers were dead within 10 minutes and the battle was won.

  8. Neil Craig
    June 10, 2012

    Evidence that in war while numbers are useful, vistory more often goes to the most technologically advanced. Something to remeber when our military spending is concentrating on putiing squaddies on thje ground (or in it) , maintaining regimental glory & building obselete aircraft carriers without aircraft – rather than remotely controlled frones, air mobility and orbital weapons.

  9. forthurst
    June 10, 2012

    Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar was achieved through superior tactics, seamanship and gunnery. The British were fortunate to have two great warriors, Nelson and Wellesley to confront Napoleon; both very superior Englishmen gifted with courage, intelligence and patriotic fervour.
    Mostly, we do not have leadership like theirs, so we have to resort to bigging up blunderers like Winston Churchill whose endeavours left us weakened and vunerable to the catastrophic destruction of our country, orchestrated by his paymasters, of a reckless dalliance with multiculturalism.

  10. Boudicca
    June 10, 2012

    “Britain fought for the small nations and independent peoples of Europe against the French dictator who wished to place all under his rule and continental system”

    Looking where we are today, trapped within the Franco-German dominated EU and not a shot fired, it kinda makes you wonder why we bothered. Or with WW1 and 2.

    1. lojolondon
      June 11, 2012

      Yes – the EU – or the “Fourth Reich” as I like to call it –

      Why did we bother??

  11. uanime5
    June 10, 2012

    One of the main reasons for the successes of the Americans ships was that they were fast enough to escape larger ships that were chasing them and strong enough to defeat anything that could catch them.

  12. John Orchard
    June 11, 2012

    Having read numerous books on the fighting forces of this Counntry throughout history one thing is paramount, how they were treated during the campaings and subsequently on their return to these shores. They were in the main under resourced ( rings a bell ) and suffered severe punishment for frivolous misdemeanours by cruel Senior Officers irrespective of their bravery. This even showed itself after the Napoleonic wars when they brought out the Vagrancy Act of 1824 aimed at these brave men having to offer deformaties, begging owing to the fact they were cast aside. This rings true in bot WW1 and 11. Yes we won wars but the ground floor was treated shamefully. Even today Forces charities are picking up the bill for what the Government should be paying for as Blair backed by the Tories sent in the Troops on lies and deceit.

  13. Sandy Jamieson
    June 11, 2012

    Yet at the same time the MOD is considering scrapping HM Caroline a 1914 Light Cruiser currently in Belfast. This vessel is the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland surely a prime candidiate for a place of honour similar to that held by HMS Victory or HMS Belfast.

  14. David Langley
    June 12, 2012

    Some leaders can get you to follow them anywhere, others you follow out of sheer curiosity, what kind of leader are you John I wonder?

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