The capture of HM Ships Cyane & Levant by the US frigate Constitution, 20 February 1815

On this day in history (20 February 1815) the USS Constitution (44) captured HMS Cyane (22) and HMS Levant (20) during a battle in the Mid-Atlantic, east of Madeira. The battle took place after the War of 1812 had ended, with neither side knowing that the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.

“Capture of H.M. Ships Cyane & Levant, by the U.S. Frigate Constitution”, 20 February 1815, lithograph, US Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC.

Minutes of Action between the U.S. Frigate Constitution and H.M. Ships Cyane and Levant, 20 February 1815

Commences with light breezes from the E and cloudy weather. At 1 discovered a sail two points on the larboard bow–hauled up and made sail in chace–At 1/2 past 1 made the Sail to be a Ship’s at 3/4 past 1 discovered another Sail ahead–made them out at 2p.m. to be both Ships, standing closehauled, with their Starboard tacks on board. At 4 p.m. the weathermost ship made signals and bore up for her consort, then about ten miles to the leeward. –We bore up after her, and set lower topmast, top gallant, and royal studding sails in chace–At 1/2 past 4 carried away our main royal mast–took in the Sails and got another prepared. At 5 p.m. commenced firing on the chace from our larboard bow guns–our shot falling short, ceased firing–At 1/2 past 5, finding it impossible to prevent their junction, cleared ship for action, then about 4 miles from the two ships–At 40 minutes after 5, they passed within hail of each other, and hauled by the wind on the starboard tack, hauled up their courses and prepared to receive us–At 45 minutes past 5, they made all sail close hauled by the wind, in hopes of getting to windward of us.–At 55 minutes past 5, finding themselves disappointed in their object, and we were closing with them fast, they shortened sail and formed on a line of wind, about half a cableslength from each other. At 6 p.m. having them under the command of our battery, hoisted our colours, which was answered by both ships hoisting English Ensigns. At 5 minutes past 6, ranged up on the Starboard side of the Sternmost Ship, about 200 yards distant, and commenced action by broadsides, both ships returning fire with great spirit for about 12 minutes, then the fire of the enemy beginning to slacken, and the great column of smoke collected under our lee, induced us to cease our fire to ascertain their positions and conditions. –in about 3 minutes, the smoke clearing away, we found ourselves abreast of their headmost ship, the sternmost ship luffing up for our larboard quarter–we poured a broadside into the headmost ship, and then braced aback our Main and Mizen Topsails, and backed astern under the cover of smoke, abreast the stern most ship, when action was continued with spirit and considerable effect until 35 minutes past 6, when the enemy’s fire again slackened, and we discovered the headmost bearing up-filled our topsails-shot ahead, and gave her two stern rakes–we then discovered the sternmost ship nearing also– wore ship immediately after her, and gave her a stern rake, she luffing too on our Starboard bows, and giving us her larboard broadside. We ranged up on the larboard quarter, within hail, and was about to give her our starboard broadside when she struck her colours, fired a lee gun, and yielded. At 20 minutes past 6, took possession of H.M. Ship Cyane, Captain Gordon Falcon, mounting 34 guns At 8 p.m. filled away after her consort, which was still in sight to leeward — at 1/2 past 8 found her standing towards us, with her Starboard tacks closehauled, with top-gallant set, and colours flying– at 20 minutes past 8, ranged close along to windward of her, on opposite tacks, and exchanged broadsides–wore immediately under her stern and raked her with a broadside, she then crowded all sail and endeavoured to escape by running–hauled on board our Tacks, Let Spanker and Flying jib in chace–and 1/2 past 9 commenced firing on her from our starboard bow chaser. –gave her several shot which cut her spars and rigging considerably–at 10 p.m. finding they could not escape, fired a gun, struck her colours and yielded. We immediately took possession of H.M. Ship Levant, Honorable Captain George Douglas, mounting 21 guns. At 1 a.m. the damages of our rigging was repaired, sails and the ship in fighting condition.

Excerpts from the journal of A.Y. Humphreys, Chaplain, USS Constitution, describing the encounter with H.M. Ships Cyane and Levant, 20 February 1815

Throughout the night standing to the northward and westward under short sail on the starboard tack continuing on this tack without seeing any thing untill 1h 10m. p.m. on Monday when a sail was cried from the mast head as being on the weather bow: hauled up for her under all sail, shortly after another sail was descried on the lee bow and word from aloft that the ship to windward had bore up for us. As we were now in the direct track for craft bound from the Mediterranean to Madeira &c felt assured that none but men of war would manoeuvre in this way and were not mistaken. At 2:30 p.m. the ship standing for us displayed signals which not being answered she squared away to the westward to join her consort setting all studding sails and making a great display of bunting, which she enforced with a number of guns. Set every rag in chase, the wind rather lulling. At a few minutes before three commenced firing from the forward guns on gun deck, the shot falling short ceased firing; at 3:15 opened again from the forward guns the shot just reaching. At 3:45 carried away the main royal mast which enabled the chase to distance our fire. Set Carpenters to work to make a new royal mast which they completed about 5. At 5:30 the breeze freshening a little. The ship to leeward tacking to the Southward under all sail. At 6 the weather ship passed under the stern of the other and spoke with her took in light sails and both of them hauled up their mainsails and hauled too on the starboard tack in line. At 6:10 ranged ahead of the sternmost which we found to be a frigate built ship, bringing her on the quarter and her consort on the bow distant about two hundred yards, and opened our broadsides which was returned with great quickness and spirit and some degree of precision; continued exchanging broadsides until the whole were enveloped in smoke upon the clearing away of which perceived we had got abreast of the headmost ship, manned both sides in case it should be necessary to ware ship, and backed the main and mizen topsails and dropped into our first station, the ship on the bow backing her topsails also; broke the men off from the starboard battery and renewed the action from the larboard; after a few broadsides the ship on the bow perceived the error she had committed in getting stern board, & filled away with the intention of tacking athwart our bow, the ship on the quarter at the same moment falling off perfectly unmanageable; filled away in pursuit of the former and compelled him to put his helm up at about one hundred yards distant pouring several raking broadsides into him. He made all sail before the wind which we did not think proper to reduce knowing his crippled situation would enable us to overhaul him after securing his consort, wore sound and ranged alongside the latter when she hoisted a light and fired a gun to leeward and upon being hailed to that effect replied she had surrendered. Sent a boat on board and took possession of His Majesty’s Ship Cyane Capt Gordon Falcon mounting 34 guns 32 pound carronades — having received her Commander and officers on board with the greater part of her crew ordered her to keep company and filled away in chase of the other gentleman and in short time discovered him on the weather bow standing for us. In a few minutes he luffed to and fired his broadsides which was duly repaid, he then tacked ship and made all sail by the wind receiving a rake from our starboard broadside; set the Royals and soon gained his wake and opened upon him from the gun deck chase guns with great effect and in a few minutes after she hoisted a light and hove too. Ranged alongside, sent a boat on board and took possession of His Majesty’s Ship Levant Capt. Douglass, of 18 32 pound carronades and 2 long 12 pounders. The whole of this business occupied about three hours, only forty-five minutes of which were taken up in compelling both ships to yield to our superior gunnery. The Cyane when she struck had five feet water in the hold and otherwise very much cut up, her masts tottering and nothing but the smoothness of the sea preventing them from going over the side. The Levant in a condition somewhat better, her spars having generally escaped, but her hull pretty well drilled and her deck a perfect slaughter house, in fact so hardly had she been dealt with on deck that her men by the acknowledgement of their Officers twice went below from their quarters. The Constitution lost not a spar but the fore top gallant yard, and was in better order if possible to have fought a similar action than when the late one commenced. The loss on the part of the two ships was upwards of forty killed and nearly double that number wounded, the Constitution had four killed and eleven wounded. Two or three hours sufficed to place the three ships in a condition to make sail and by four o’clock on the morning of Sunday Feby. 21st they were standing to the Westward.

“The Navy’s here!” HMS Cossack frees prisoners from the Altmark, 16 February 1940

On 16 February, 1940, Royal Navy Tribal-class destroyer HMS Cossack (Capt. Philip Vian, RN) pursued the German prison ship Altmark into Jøssingfjord, Norway, and freed 299 prisoners of war.

The orders to enter neutral Norwegian waters had been approved personally by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. If Capt. Vian was unable to secure the cooperation of the Norwegian authorities to search the Altmark – which herself was in violation of Norwegian neutrality – then he was ordered to board the Nazi vessel regardless, as a copy of the Admiralty signal to Vian shows:

Signal from Admiralty to Captain (D) 4th Flotilla.

Signal from Admiralty to Captain (D) 4th Flotilla sent 16th February 1940.

The official Norwegian inspection of Altmark when she entered territorial waters had, on three separate occasions, failed to discover the 299 prisoners held in the ship’s hold. How thorough were these inspections? To what extent was Adm. Carsten Tank-Nielsen complicit in letting the German’s continue their deception? Where the Norwegians attempting to curry favour Germany? These are questions worthy of debate at another time.

Vian was unable to secure the co-operation of the Norwegian authorities, beyond yet another assurance that the were no prisoners held on the Altmark. At 22:20 on the night of 16th February 1940, Vian brought HMS Cossack alongside the Altmark and sent a boarding party. After a bloody struggle, the armed German guards were overpowered and the prisoners were located.

“Any Englishmen here?”

“Yes! We are all British!”

“Well, the Navy’s here!”

The boarding party from HMS Cossack tackled the Altmark’s German guards in hand-to-hand fighting with fixed bayonets and cutlasses. It was the last recorded use of the cutlass in a boarding action by the Royal Navy.

Cutlass, 1900 Pattern. From the Canadian War Museum.

Concluding the action, Capt. Vian signalled the Admiralty with news of his success, as this copy of his signal shows:

Capt. Vian's signal to the Admiralty sent on the morning of 17 February 1940.

Capt. Vian’s signal to the Admiralty sent on the morning of 17 February 1940.

HMS Cossack left Jøssingfjord unmolested by Norwegian ships, although official protests were lodged through diplomatic channels. She arrived at Leith where she landed the rescued merchant seamen. Vian was awarded the DSO for his actions on the night of 16th/17th February and the phrase, “The Navy’s here!” would enter the history books.

HMS ‘Cossack’ and the prison ship ‘Altmark’, 16 February 1940, by Norman Wilkinson. Painting in collection of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Copyright Norman Wilkinson Estate.

“Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804” by Edward Moran

“Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804” by Edward Moran. Painting in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection.

Official reports, Decatur burns USS Philadelphia at Tripoli, 16 February 1804

From the “Statement of the circumstances attending the destruction of the frigate Philadelphia, with the names of the officers and the number of men employed on the occasion, as laid before the President by the Secretary of the Navy, November 13, 1804.”:

On the 31st January, 1804, Commodore Preble, lying with his squadron in the harbor of Syracuse, gave orders to Lieutenant Charles Stewart, commanding the brig Syren, of 16 guns, and to Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, jr., commanding the ketch Intrepid, of 4 guns and 75 men, to proceed to Tripoli, and to destroy the frigate Philadelphia of 44 guns, then lying in the harbor of Tripoli. Lieutenant Decatur had orders to enter the harbor in the night, board and set fire to the Philadelphia; and Lieut. Stewart was ordered to take the best possible position, without the harbor, to cover the retreat.

Under these orders, they proceeded immediately to the coast of Tripoli; but, owing to the very heavy gales of wind that usually prevail there in the winter season, the enterprise could not be undertaken until the 16th of February, when Lieutenant Stewart, having taken the best possible position to effect the object of his instructions, Lieutenant Decatur, at seven o’clock in the night, entered the harbor of Tripoli, boarded, and took possession of the Philadelphia.

This frigate, at the time she was boarded, had all her guns mounted and charged, and was lying within half gun shot of the Bashaw’s castle, and of his principal battery. Two Tripolitan cruisers were lying within two cables length on the starboard quarter, and several gun boats within half gun-shot on the starboard bow, and all the batteries on shore were opened upon the assailants. About twenty men in the Philadelphia were killed, a large boat full got off, and one man was made prisoner.

After having gained possession of the frigate, Lieut. Decatur set fire to her store rooms, gun room, cock pit, and birth deck; and with a firmness highly honorable to him, his officers and men, they remained on board until the flames had issued from the ports of the gun deck and the hatchways of the spar deck, and they continued in the ketch, along side the frigate, until the fire had communicated to her rigging and tops.

Lieutenant Decatur did not lose a man, and had but one slightly wounded.

From Edward Preble’s orders to Stephen Decatur, 31 January 1804:

UNITED STATES’ FRIGATE CONSTITUTION,

Syracuse Harbor, January 31, 1804.

Sir: You are herby ordered to take command of the prize ketch, which I have named the Intrepid, and prepare her with all possible, despatch for a cruise of thirty days, with full allowance of water, provision, &c., for seventy-five men. I shall send you five midshipmen from the Constitution, and you will take seventy men, including officers, from the Enterprise, if that number can be found ready to volunteer their services for boarding and burning the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli; if not, report to me, and I will furnish you with men to complete your complement. It is expected you will be ready to sail to-morrow evening, or some hours sooner, if the signal is made for that purpose.

It is my orders that you proceed to Tripoli, in company with the Syren, lieutenant Stewart, enter that harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her, and make good your retreat, with the Intrepid, if possible, unless you can make her the means of destroying the enemy’s vessels in the harbor, by converting her into a fireship, for that purpose, and retreating in your boats and those of the Syren. You must take fixed ammunition and apparatus for the frigate’s 18-pounders, and if you can, without risking too much, you may endeavor to make them the instruments of destruction to the shipping and Bashaw’s castle. You will provide all the necessary combustibles for burning and destroying ships. The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance, and I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it. Lieutenant Stewart will support you with the boats of the Syren, and cover your retreat with that vessel. Be sure and set fire in the gun-room births, cock-pit, store-rooms forward, and births on the birth-deck.

After the ship is well on fire, point two of the 18-pounders, shotted, down the main hatch, and blow her bottom out. I enclose you a memorandum of the articles, arms, ammunition, fire-works, &c., necessary, and which you are to take with you. Return to this place as soon as possible, and report to me your proceedings. On boarding the frigate, it is probable you may meet with resistance-it will be well, in order to prevent alarm, to carry all by the sword. May God prosper and succeed you in this enterprise.

I have the honor to be, Sir, your obedient serv’t,

EDWARD PREBLE.

From Stephen Decatur’s report to Edward Preble, 17 February 1804:

Lieut. Commandant S. Decatur’s Report to Com. Preble.

On Board the Ketch Intrepid, at Sea ,
February 17, 1804.

Sir: I have the honor to inform you, that in pursuance to your orders of the 31st ultimo, to proceed with this ketch off the harbor of Tripoli, there to endeavor to effect the destruction of the late United States’ frigate Philadelphia, I arrived there in company with the United States’ brig Syren, lieutenant commandant Stewart, on the 7th, but owing to the badness of the weather, was unable to effect any thing until last evening, when we had a light breeze from the N.E. At 7 o’clock I entered the harbor with the Intrepid, the Syren having gained her station without the harbor, in a situation to support us in our retreat. At half past 9 o’clock, laid her alongside of the Philadelphia, boarded, and after a short contest, carried her. I immediately fired her in the store-rooms, gun-room, cock-pit, and birth-deck, and remained on board until the flames had issued from the spar-deck, hatchways, and ports, and before I had got from alongside, the fire had communicated to the rigging and tops. Previous to our boarding, they had got their tompions out, and hailed several times, but not a gun fired.

The noise occasioned by boarding and contending for possession, although no fire-arms were used, gave a general alarm on shore, and on board their cruisers, which lay about a cable and a half’s length from us, and many boats filled with men lay around, but from whom we received no annoyance. They commenced a fire on us from all their batteries on shore, but with no other effect than one shot passing through our top-gallant sail.

The frigate was moored within half-gunshot of the Bashaw’s castle, and of their principal battery-two of their cruisers lay within two cables’ length on the starboard quarter, and their gunboats within half gunshot of the starboard bow. She had all her guns mounted and loaded, which, as they became hot went off. As she lay with her broadside to the town, I have no doubt but some damage has been done by them. Before I got out of the harbor, her cables had burnt off, and she drifted in under the castle, where she was consumed. I can form no judgment as to the number of men on board, but there were twenty killed. A large boat full got off, and many leapt into the sea. We have made one prisoner, and I fear from the number of bad wounds he has received he will not recover, although every assistance and comfort has been given him.

I boarded with sixty men and officers, leaving a guard on board the ketch for her defence, and it is the greatest pleasure I inform you, I had not a man killed in this affair, and but one slightly wounded. Every support that could be given I received from my officers, and as each of their conduct was highly meritorious, I beg leave to enclose you a list of their names. Permit me also, sir, to speak of the brave fellows I have the honor to command, whose coolness and intrepidity was such as I trust will ever characterise the American tars.

It would be injustice in me, were I to pass over the important services rendered by Mr. Salvadore, the pilot, on whose good conduct the success of the enterprise in the greatest degree depended. He gave me entire satisfaction.

I have the honor to be, sir, &c.,

STEPHEN DECATUR.

Nelson Boarding the San Josef at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797

Nelson Boarding the San Josef at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797, by George Jones, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

HMS Victory raking the Salvador del Mundo, Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 Feb 1797

HMS ‘Victory’ Raking the ‘Salvador del Mundo’ at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797, by Thomas Luny, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

41 For Freedom

The “41 for Freedom” were 41 ballistic missile submarines commissioned by the US Navy during the Cold War. They included submarines from the George Washington (5), Ethan Allen (5), Lafayette (9), James Madison (10) and Benjamin Franklin (12) classes. The first to enter commission was the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) on 30 December 1959 and the last to inactivate from US Navy service was the USS Kamehameha (SSBN-642) on 2 April 2002.