On Two Great and Unusual Naval Victories
Updated: Mar 21, 2019
I first "went to sea" aboard the RMS Orion in September 1952, sailing from Perth to London, then from Southampton to New York on the RMS Queen Elizabeth. By the time we reached New York (about an eight-week voyage), I had spent more than half of my life at sea. I think this places me in the position to be regarded as something of an expert on the sea-related matters.
It is an interesting quirk of history that two of the greatest naval victories did not actually involve direct contact between ships of opposing fleets. In one of these battles, the two fleets never even saw each other, and no ship on either side fired even a single shot at the enemy. In the second battle, only one of the engaging sides actually employed ships at all.
The Battle of Midway was a naval engagement between the United States and Japan that took place on 4-6 June 1942. It is regarded as a decisive victory for the United States, which ended Japanese dreams of more territorial conquest in the Pacific. Although a large number of vessels were involved, including three American aircraft carriers, and four aircraft carriers of the Japanese fleet, the engagement took place when the two fleets were some distance from one another. All of the fighting took place in the air. Within a quarter of an hour American pilots had sunk three of Japan's carriers. In total, by the end of the engagement the Japanese had lost four carriers, a heavy cruiser, 3,500 men and 270 aircraft, as opposed to American losses of one carrier, 100 men and 130 aircraft. This put an end to Japan's attempts to take the strategic island of Midway, and effectively ended it's role as an important naval power.
The other engagement has entirely eluded the notice of historians of sea warfare. The reason for this is probably that it took place on dry land, some 60 kilometres from the sea. This was the siege of Jerusalem that was played out in the summer of 1099, an engagement between the army of the First Crusade and that of the Egyptian Fatimid's who held the Holy City at that time. The Egyptians had cut down all the forests and disposed of the timber supply in the vicinity of Jerusalem prior to the arrival of the Christians, leaving the Crusaders with no material with which to build ladders, towers and other siege machines. Without these, they were incapable of overcoming the city's defences. This problem, which had delayed the conquest of Jerusalem for several weeks, was finally resolved when some Genoese galleys anchored in the port of Jaffa were dismantled and brought up to the Holy City where they were reconstructed as three large siege towers. Two of these towers were destroyed in the ensuing battle but one was brought up against the northern city wall and the troops climbing it entered the city, opened the gates, and brought about the conquest of Jerusalem and two centuries of Latin rule in the Holy Land.
One wonders if, when scaling the siege tower on the morning of 15 July, the two Flemish brothers who were the first to go up, had any realisation of the fact that they were participating what is arguably the greatest naval victory of the Middle Ages.