Fireships And Their Use In Naval Battles

Key Point: Fireships were vessels loaded with combustible materials, deliberately ignited, and then set adrift or sailed into enemy fleets during naval battles.

In this article, we will take a look at fireships. And how they were used as a naval weapon in naval battles throughout history. In some cases, they even changed the course of human history.

So strap yourself in and explore how fireships were used and how effective they were as weapons. Now, before we begin, let’s establish the main thing first. What do I mean when I say fireships? What are fireships in the context of naval weapons?

Fireships are a type of naval warfare tactic in which ships are filled with flammable materials and set on fire before being directed toward enemy ships. This tactic has been used throughout history, from ancient times to the age of sail, and was a particularly effective way to cause chaos and damage to an enemy fleet.

That was the summary of the article. Now, let’s examine this unusual naval weapon in a little more detail. Starting with the origins of fireships.

Origin Of Fireships

The use of fireships actually goes back a long time. With records showing fireships being used as far back as the Peloponnesian war (Battle of Pylos). And you know if the Greeks used something during battles the Romans copied it.

The same goes for fireships. With Romans using them during the Punic wars. Surprisingly there was a slight lull in fireship use after the end of the Roman empire.

While the Byzantine navy did use greek fire in naval engagements, their ships do not technically fall under the umbrella of “fireships”. Why is that? Well, the Byzantine ships survived battles, and fireships tend not to. You will see what I mean when we get to the part about how they were used.

Suffice it to say, fireships came back into the picture in a big way during the so-called “age of sail”. This is the period of roughly the 16th to the mid-19th century.

Let’s see what I mean in the next segment.

Famous Battles Where Fireships Were Used

There were a couple of famous battles where fireships really made a massive difference.

A couple of famous battles with fireships are:

  • Battle of Gravelines in 1588 (English used fireships to defeat the Spanish Armada)
  • Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809 (The English defeated the French fleet)
  • Myeongnyang naval battle in 1597 (the Koreans used fireships to destroy the Japanese invading fleet)

The most famous battle among all others is the Battle of Gravelines in 1588. This is where fireships saved Britain from being invaded by the Spanish. The tactic of the Brits was rather simple. They set as many of their ships as they could on fire and pointed them toward the armada. This did destroy a few of their ships but more importantly made the rest of the ships pull up anchor. Which made them less stable during the ensuing storm.

Which disrupted their invasions and further destroyed any chances of a successful invasion.

Now, let’s take a look at the tactic behind fireship use.

How Fireships Were Used

Here is a clip that is pretty historically accurate in its demonstration of how fireships were used.

How fireships were used

The premise is simple. The side that used fireships found “a few” old ships that were barely afloat. They stuffed as much flammable material on the ship as they could. That includes gunpowder. And then they put a bare minimum number of people on board the ships whose task was to steer the ship. And of course, light it up.

As you can see in the above video, they steered the ship, lit it ablaze then jumped ship at the last possible moment. The ship was on fire at this point and it rammed the enemy ship. Or even if they grazed it … the gunpowder on board often caused a massive explosion that caused enough damage for it to still be effective.

So, Why Did Fireships Fell Out Of Use?

The reason why fireships stopped being used was the changing climate of naval warfare. Ironclad ships made sure that ships were less susceptible to flames from outside sources and they were also more resistant to explosions.

Now, if you add to that better, and more effective long-range guns then you can see how that made fireships terribly outdated. So, while fireships played a huge part in history as a naval weapon they fell behind the times.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you learned a thing or two about this wonderfully weird naval weapon. And if you want to see an article on another weapon used during the “age of sail” then click here where we cover boarding pikes and their use in naval battles.

Or go here to see how the Koreans used fortified ships to guard their coastlines.

Take care!

Source: “Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail: The Evolution of Fighting Tactics, 1650-1815” by Brian Tunstall