Reflections by award-winning maritime historian Joan Druett, author of many books about the sea
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Saturday, August 19, 2017
An update from the author of the Dawlish Chronicles
A Dawlish Chronicles update – and some rediscovered photographs
Firstly, an update on the sixth Dawlish Chronicles novel. The manuscript is ready for publication and all that now remains before submission of the total package is finalisation of the cover. For this I am working closely with a splendid designer, Sara Leigh Paterson, who previously produced the covers for Britannia’s Spartan and Britannia’s Amazon. The design process is a fascinating and rewarding one, with various concepts initially suggested by myself and with Sara coming up with pencil sketches and mock-up alternatives.
Choosing between some ten attractive designs has been difficult but I’ll be revealing the winner – and the book’s title, in the near future. I’m aiming to have it published in both hard-copy and eBook formats by October. For the time being this latest book is still Britannia’s X, with “X” yet to be revealed. I’ll be sending a free hard-copy to whoever guesses what “X” might be. The only clue that might help is that the story sees Captain Nicholas Dawlish serving Queen and Empire in 1884-85. If you guess what X may be, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Some recent sorting of stored documentation has thrown up two photographs which provided useful references when I was writing Britannia’s Wolf. They had “gone missing” for several years and I found them again quite fortuitously. You may find them of interest.
If you have read Britannia’s Wolf you will remember that a very significant role was played by Nordenvelt guns, weapons which were in general use on many warships in the late-Victorian period. Though capable of a high rate of fire, the Nordenvelt, like its contemporaries the Gatling and the Gardner, was not an automatic machine-gun. In the Nordenvelt’s case it was activated by pulling a lever back and forth, feeding rounds into the breeches of the gun’s barrels from a vertical hopper-magazine, firing them, and ejecting the spent cases. The slow rate of fire from each individual barrel was compensated for by placing multiple barrels in parallel. Up to a dozen barrels might be employed, though three or four were more common, the calibre usually being .45 inch. In one demonstration for the Royal Navy a 10-barrelled version fired 3,000 rounds of ammunition in just over three minutes without stoppage or failure.
Japanese seamen operating a ship-mounted Nordenvelt.
It appears to be a 3-man team: possibly the aimer at front left, crank operator at front right, and the loader ahead and to the left.
The Nordenvelt, due to its multiple barrels, was heavy by comparison with later, genuinely automatic, machine guns such as the Maxim. The weight penalty was not a major drawback on shipboard, but if deployed on land it needed a field-gun type carriage. Entering service in several navies in the 1870s, including the Royal Navy, it provided the ideal defence against attack by small torpedo-armed vessels. A heavy version, firing one-inch solid steel rounds from up to four barrels, was developed to provide a fearsome counter to lightly-constructed, unarmoured torpedo craft and their poorly-protected crews. The Nordenvelt was made obsolete in the late 1880s by the arrival of fully-automatic machine guns but many served on in smaller navies long beyond this time.
My fascination with the Nordenvelt design was triggered some thirty years ago when I found a sample mounted in the yard of a police station in Warri, Southern Nigeria. My recently rediscovered photographs are of this weapon. It has three barrels and the vertical ammunition magazine and the operating lever can be seen clearly. It is mounted on a conical steel mounting, such as would suit it for placement on a ship, or even a small steam craft, such as a pinnace.
So how did this fascinating weapon end up in a Nigerian police station? Nobody could remember, and indeed nobody knew what it was even called. My own guess is that it was mounted on a small Royal Navy craft used for patrolling the vast mangrove swamp of the Niger Delta. Another possibility is that it may have been a weapon taken off the protected cruiser HMS Philomel, which provided the naval brigade for the Benin Expedition of 1897, the city of Benin being approximately 55 miles north of Warri. If so, then this weapon may have seen extensive service. (This is a reminder to me to write a blog in the future about this remarkable expedition, which was instrumental in bringing African Art to the notice, for the first time, of European critics).
Finding these photographs again has brought back happy memories – and are a good example of the fact that when one sits down to write, one’s entire experience is a preparation for that moment.
Best Wishes: Antoine Vanner
And it you haven’t readBritannia’s Wolf yet – in which we encounter Commander Nicholas Dawlish on unofficial secondment to the Ottoman Navy in 1877-78 -Click here to find out more.