Tigris Gunboats

Tigris Gunboats

Wilfred Nunn
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Captain, later Rear Admiral, Wilfred Nunn narrates the entire First World War campaign in Meopatamia, modern day Iraq, in this fascinating account of Riverine Warfare, most of it direct from the front lines.

This however is not simply a naval history but one of the intense cooperation between the flotilla of shallow draught Royal Navy vessels under his command and the Army's increasingly large presence. Unlike most First World War histories this isn't of stagnant front lines and stalemate, instead a dynamic campaign against the Turkish forces which eventually lead to the fall of Baghdad, Jerusalem and the surrender of the Ottomans.

Initially as the Captain of a sloop tasked with securing Abadan, and the vital oil supplies from Persia for the Home Fleet, the familiar theme of mission creep starts to emerge. British forces advance further up the Tigris and Euphrates in a series of combined arm operations outmanouvreing the Turkish forces until they naturally bite off more than they can chew in defeat at the battle of Ctesiphon outside of Baghdad. The retreat and better resourced later offensive is captured in some detail.

As the book progresses and his command grows the individual actions become less detailed though at times the early parts of the book read like a boy's own adventure. The mobility and firepower of the tiny gunboats under his command is certainly impressive and often clearly the difference between success and failure on land. At Umm al Tubul for example where the Turk's 2000 casualties were in large part caused by a couple of gunboats at close range. Or as the author describes it, "performed tremendous execution".

One feature of the book is the lack of institutional inertia so often seen today. For instance after discovering, in June of 1915, that the Tigris was simply too shallow during the dry season to allow his thousand tonne sloops further up river he contacted the Admiralty who ordered a new class of 100 tonne river gunboats from Yarrow's. These were designed, manufactured and shipped out as kits in August along with engineers who would build them in situ. The first of class taking part in offensive actions in the November of the same year. This includes both the sailing time from the Clyde and the several weeks needed to navigate the upper reaches of the river itself. One might suspect it would take the modern MoD longer to decide which make of paperclips to procure.

It is both a thought provoking and an entertaining read, though maybe a little short at 282 pages. One is left wondering whether valuable lessons on the utility of rivers and gunboats both for logistics and fire support have been forgotten. How indeed would actions such as the defence of CIMIC house in Al Amara by a company of the Princess of Wale's Regiment ( as detailed in books such as Sniper One ) have fared with a single 1915 era gunboat on hand? Whilst an armoured column couldn't relieve them there was afterall a jetty all of 100 yards from that base.

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