Sunday 27th of October 2002 09:26 AM 
The Royal Navy and the Boer War

This article was written by Peter Singlehurst and appears by kind permission of the Victorian Military Society. It is an updated version of a piece that first appeared in the special Boer War Centenary Edition of the Victorian Military Society's Journal, Soldiers of the Queen in November 1999. Details of the Victorian Military Society can be found at


The Boer War is usually thought of as a purely land based conflict. This is not really surprising, as the two Boer Republics were completely landlocked. The Royal Navy however was involved in many ways during the Boer War. Probably the best known role being the manning of ships' guns, that were landed to support the army ashore. The navy did though have several other important duties, more related to its own traditional roles.
The transport of the British and Imperial forces, together with their protection was the responsibility of the Royal Navy. Another important role that was carried out by the majority of the ships that served with the Cape Station, was the prevention of supplies reaching the Boer Republics. In the case of British controlled ports this was a relatively simple exercise. There was however one useable port that was still open to the Boers and this was the Portuguese port of Lourenço Marques in Delagoa Bay. For the first year of the war the Royal Navy was heavily involved in a secret campaign to prevent supplies passing through this port.


The Cape brigade

At the start of the conflict, it soon became apparent to the British, that the Boers possessed guns that outranged anything that the army had. The navy did though possess guns of a similar range aboard its ships. A naval brigade was therefore organised and armed with 12 pounder guns. After an initial deployment where the brigade was not used, the brigade returned to Simonstown, where it was reorganised, before finally leaving Capetown for the front, commanded by Captain Prothero of HMS Doris. At the start of the campaign the brigade consisted of approximately 400 officers and ratings, from HM ships Doris, Powerful, and Monarch. The brigade joined Lord Methuen's relief force for Kimberley and first saw service at the Battle of Belmont. At the Battle of Graspan a few days later the brigade were used as infantry and while carrying out the main attack on the Boer positions suffered very heavy casualties. This was the only occasion when the navy fought offensively as infantry.
After the battle, reinforcements arrived together with two 4.7 inch guns. The command of the brigade also passed to Captain Bearcroft of HMS Philomel, this was due to the wounding of Captain Prothero at Graspan. After the action at the Modder River, a further two 4.7 inch guns joined the Brigade, one of these was manned by a party from the Flagship HMS Doris and the other by a detachment from HMS Barrosa. These guns were commanded by Commander Grant of the Doris and as such were known as 'Grant's Guns'. The brigade fought with the army, now commanded by Lord Roberts, all the way to Pretoria and the final major engagements of the campaign. Soon after the surrender of the Boer capital, the naval brigade handed its guns over to the army and returned to its ships. For their service ashore, the men of the Cape Naval brigade received the Queen's South Africa Medal with up to eight clasps.

The Ladysmith brigade
As the Cape Naval brigade was being prepared, events in Natal meant that the navy was also called on to supply some long range artillery there. This request was made by Sir George White, the commander of British forces in Natal, for the defence of Ladysmith. HMS Powerful was rushed to Durban where Captain Lamberton landed a brigade armed with two 4.7 inch guns and three twelve pounders, which succeeded in getting to Ladysmith before the Boers encircled the town. After the siege was lifted this brigade was able to return to their ship.

The Natal brigade
In Natal, with the Boers sweeping towards Durban and with Ladysmith besieged, a large naval brigade was landed from HM Ships Terrible, Forte, Philomel, Tartar, and Thetis. This was initially to defend Durban, and Captain Percy Scott, the captain of Terrible, was put in overall command of the defence of the town. Scott was an acknowledged expert on gunnery, who had designed the mounting for the naval 12 pounders, the 4.7 inch guns and latter a 6 inch gun that were landed.
When General Buller began the campaign to relieve Ladysmith, part of his force was a number of naval guns under the command of Captain EP Jones of the Forte. The first attempt to relieve Ladysmith failed after the Battle of Colenso and several further attempts failed, including the disastrous action at Spion Kop, before Ladysmith was finally relieved. The naval contingent from Terrible then rejoined their ship that was needed in China. The remainder of the brigade fought on as Buller joined the invasion of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. By October, the Natal Naval Brigade had handed its guns over to the army and had returned to its ships. The men of this brigade qualified for up to five clasps for their Queen's South Africa Medal.


The main role of the Royal Navy during the Boer War, even while the naval brigades were serving ashore, was to maintain a patrol of the South African coast and thus deny the use of all ports to the Boers. This was achieved by maintaining a standing squadron off the coast, at Delagoa Bay in Portuguese Africa, thus attempting to deny the only rail link between Pretoria and the coast to the Boers that was still open. Initially HM Ships, Magicienne, Widgeon, and Partridge made up the blockading squadron, as these ships had not been required to land any men for the naval brigades ashore. HMS Dwarf was also stationed at the mouth of the Limpopo River further north.
The Royal Navy could not officially blockade a neutral port, as this would have been an act of war, and the Portuguese were one of the UK's oldest allies. This meant the Royal Navy could not prevent ships from docking at ports such as Lourenço Marques, but they could stop ships making for these ports in international waters and search them. In reality though this search consisted of inspecting the stopped ships papers. If the ship was found to be carrying war supplies it could be sent into a British port. In the early stages of the war there were several attempts at claiming some of these vessels as prizes of war, however none of these claims were accepted by the prize court at Durban.
In early 1900 it was decided to replace the British Consul at Lourenço Marques with a retired naval officer as the Consul General. This officer Captain FHE Crowe was an intelligence officer and became the head of a covert intelligence war that was conducted from the British consulate. This campaign was intended to counter the activities of the Transvaal Consul. One aspect of this campaign was that British agents bought as many supplies as possible on their arrival at Lourenço Marques. These supplies were later used when the army arrived at the Komati Poort Bridge on the Portuguese border in October 1900.
The Royal Navy also maintained standing patrols and guard ships all along the coast right round to German South West Africa. On several occasions, ships carrying out these patrols landed small naval brigades to protect towns on the coast. This usually happened as Boer commandos made thrusts into the Cape Colony during the guerrilla phase of the war. HMS Naiad, landed one such brigade for the protection of Vredenberg during November 1901. The other ships that landed brigades were Sybille, Terpsichore, Widgeon and Niobe. Most unusually, the Niobe's brigade landed to protect the British town of Walvis Bay in German South West Africa, which it was thought, was being threatened by a large party of Boers. The attack though failed to materialise and this force was withdrawn.
HMS Sybille was the only ship of the Royal Navy that was lost during the Boer war. This occurred during January 1901 when the ship was ordered to Lambert's Bay, to the east of Capetown, to counter a Boer thrust towards the coast that it was believed was going to develop into an attack on Capetown. During this period the Sybille, is supposed to have opened fire. The ship's log however does not record this incident and neither does any other Admiralty record. While at Lamberts Bay, Captain Williams landed with a small naval brigade to defend the anchorage and the stores there. The first Lieutenant of Sybille, HH Holland was therefore left in command of the ship. The weather now deteriorated and Holland was forced to proceed to sea. On the weather moderating, he returned to Lamberts Bay, but due to an error of judgement the ship was run aground and became a total loss. At his subsequent court martial, Holland was found guilty of negligence and lost two years seniority.
HMS Partridge was the only ship of the Royal Navy to open fire on the Boers during the war. The Partridge was in Saldanha Bay during October 1901 when a party of Boers attacked the loyal inhabitants of the area. The inhabitants managed to board a steamer but mounted Boers attempted to attack this vessel. The Partridge, by opening fire was able to drive the Boers off.
Other ships landed small parties of marines or ratings for various duties. HMS Blanche was one such ship, landing twelve marines at Lambert's Bay during March 1901. This was as cover for the salvage operations that were being carried by working parties from the Blanche at the wreck of the Sybille. The other ships that landed small parties at other times were HM Ships Thrush, Pelorus, Pearl, Magpie and Beagle.
The island of St Helena was used to hold Boer prisoners of war and the navy was required to supply a guard ship. This duty was undertaken initially by HMS Niobe before being ordered home. The duty was then carried out by the ships patrolling the west coast in rotation and each ship would spend several weeks there before being relieved. Boer prisoners were also at various times held on board naval ships in Simons Bay and ashore with guards provided by the navy.
Another duty that was undertaken was to commission and man the small Torpedo Boats that were maintained at Simonstown naval base. One such Torpedo Boat was TB 60 that was commissioned, unusually with Gunner Lyne of HMS Monarch in command. During April 1902 while in Lambert's Bay, the propeller shaft broke, leaving the torpedo boat with no power and on a lee shore. In this serious situation Lyne decided that he could use the awnings as sails and so after assembling his small crew explained his plan. Once the makeshift sails had been set, the Torpedo Boat was able to make an overnight passage to the harbour at Saldanha Bay. For this service Gunner Lyne was specially promoted to Lieutenant. As the war continued, the ships that were serving at the beginning of the war returned to the UK as their commissions expired. Four ships, though, recommissioned at Simonstown. These were HM Ships Forte, Dwarf, Partridge and Barracuda. The new crews were brought out aboard specially commissioned ships that were then turned over to the old crews for the return trip to the UK.


One of the effects of the Boer War on the Royal Navy was the recognition that the Reserve forces needed to be reorganised and increased. This was due to the manning shortages the conflict exposed particularly in the stoker branch. By 1901, the Royal Fleet Reserve had been established and was closely followed by a new short term engagement. In 1908, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was established and the Royal Naval Reserve reorganised. During the war, however, there were a small number of reserve officers who saw active service during the war. Lieutenant Richard Mason was one such officer. He served aboard HMS Tartar for twelve months in 1900. This year's service was his main qualifying time that all RNR officers had to undertake.

©2000 Peter Singlehurst
©2000 All changes, Robert Wotton

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Further Reading
Those interested in more details about the Naval Brigades in South Africa should first look at, Naval Brigades in the South African War 1899 - 1900 edited by Surgeon TT Jeans RN. Lieutenant Burne RN also had published With the Naval Brigade in Natal 1899 1900. This was an account of the 12 pounder battery he commanded. Admiral Harris the flag officer commanding the Cape station for the majority of the Boer war has included several chapters on his time at the Cape in his biography From Naval Cadet to Admiral. Those with an interest in the Queen's South Africa Medal need to consult Fevyer and Wilson's excellent book on the subject.