Horatio Hornblower’s Worst Nightmare

The tiff over maritime boundaries in the Shatt-al-Arab between Iran and Great Britain seems to be over, with the British sailors and Marines released and returned to the U.K. I continue to suspect a deal was made regarding the five Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers held by the U.S. in Iraq. If they go home in a few weeks or months, it will be a quid pro quo, regardless of how much Washington and London deny it.

For Britain, and especially for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, the incident ended in utter disgrace. The initial surrender of the British boarding party to what appears to have been a much larger Iranian force is the only defensible British action in the whole sorry business. Even in Horatio Hornblower’s Royal Navy, a British frigate captain was not disgraced if he struck to a French or Spanish ship of the line. Force majeure remains a valid excuse.

But everything else that was said or done would have given Hornblower or Jack Aubrey an apoplexy. The failure of HMS Cornwall to foresee such an event and be in a position to protect her people; the cowardice — there is no other word for it — of the boarding party (including two officers) once captured; their kissing the Iranian’s backsides in return for their release; and perhaps most un-British, their selling their disgraceful stories to the British press for money on their return — all this departs from Royal Navy traditions in ways that would have appalled the tars who fought at Trafalgar.

Yet that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is the reaction of the Navy’s higher-ups. According to a story in the April 7 Washington Times, the Royal Navy’s top commander, Admiral Jonathon Band, leapt to the boarding party’s defense with virtually Jerry Springeresque words:

He told the British Broadcasting Corp. he believed the crew behaved with “considerable dignity and a lot of courage” during their 13 days in Iranian captivity.

He also said the so-called confessions made by some of them and their broadcast on Iranian state television appear to have been made under “a certain amount of psychological pressure.”

“I would not agree at all that it was not our finest hour. I think our people have reacted extremely well in some very difficult circumstances,” he said.

Had the captives been 10-year old girls from Miss Marples’ Finishing School, Admiral Band’s words might make some sense. But these were supposed to be fighting men from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines! Yes, I meant men. What Politically Correct imbecile detailed a woman to a boarding party?

To understand just how bad the whole business is, one must first know a bit about Hornblower’s navy. In the latter half of the 18th century, the Royal Navy developed and institutionalized what we now call maneuver warfare or Third Generation war. By the Napoleonic Wars, it was all there — the outward focus, where results counted for more than following orders or the Fighting Instructions; de-centralization (Nelson was a master of mission-type orders); prizing initiative above obedience; and dependence on self-discipline (at least at the level of ship commanders and admirals) . It is often personified as the “Nelson Touch,” but it typified a whole generation of officers, not just Nelson. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy lost it all and went rigid again, for reasons described in a wonderful book, Andrew Gordon’s The Rules of the Game. But Hornblower’s and Aubrey’s navy was as fast-acting, fluid and flexible at sea as was the Kaiserheer on land.

I told Andrew Gordon that I would someday love to write the intellectual history of that first maritime incarnation of maneuver warfare; he replied that the source material to do that may not exist, since Royal Navy officers of that time were not writing things down. He may be right, but I think one incident holds the key to much of it: the execution by firing squad, on his own poop deck, of Admiral John Byng.

In 1756, at the beginning of the Seven Year’s War, the French took the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean from the British. Admiral Byng was sent out from London to relieve the island’s garrison, then under siege. He arrived, fought a mismanaged battle with the attending French squadron, then retired to Gibraltar. Deprived of naval support, the garrison surrendered. Byng was court-martialed for his failure, found guilty, and shot.

The reason Byng’s execution played a central role in the development of maneuver warfare in the Royal Navy is the main charge laid against him. The capital charge was “not doing his utmost” in the presence of the enemy. In other words, Byng was executed not for what he did, but for what he did not do. Nothing could have done more to spur initiative in the navy. As Voltaire famously wrote, “Sometimes the British shoot an admiral to encourage the others.” Encourage the others to take initiative and get the result the situation demands is exactly what it did. Without Byng, I doubt there would have been a Nelson.

Byng’s execution points directly to what went wrong in the Royal Navy in the Shatt. It is not so much what people did as what they did not do. Neither the fleet commander nor the commander of HMS Cornwall prepared for such a situation. When it happened, Cornwall did not react. The captured sailors and Marines did not think about anything except their own skins. The Royal Navy, as represented by Admiral Band, seems decided to do nothing about its disgrace except pretend it did not happen.

It is perhaps appropriate that the Royal Navy’s senior officer in the boarding party was a Lieutenant Felix Carman. The whole business represents Hornblower’s and Aubrey’s worst nightmare: the Brits have become the Dons.

WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.



WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.