Breaking The Line Changed Naval Warfare. But It Had To Wait Until Cannons Came Of Age.

by Daniel Russ on September 15, 2013



Crossing the T, or Breaking the Line was a naval tactic in the age of sails. The originator is in dispute, though some say the Dutch, inspired by Maarten Tromp devised this simple tactic during the Anglo Dutch War that moved naval warfare ahead dramatically. Look at a ship of the line and where are all the cannons? Well, they point out to port and starboard.  A few small cannonades pointed fore and aft, but otherwise, especially in Spanish Galleons, all the fire power was a beam turned towards the enemy.


In the diagram we see the positions of the British Fleet about to cut into the French Fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. Bearing all deck guns on the French ships split by the maneuver, Admiral Nelson sank or put 22 French ships out of action, and lost none.


The early middle ages saw boarding as the principle tactic to win a naval engagement. The boarding ax was a hatchet used to wing into the walls on deck and give purchase to the interloping soldier. The breech loaded swivel gun was a small armament used infrequently because of its slow rate of fire and small window of opportunity during a raid.  A Dutch double-barreled flintlock was the kind of one-shot weapon that sailors used during boarding raids. A flintlock might be used in an attempt to kill a commander or pick off a gunner’s mate. Small armsof all sorts were short term attempts to dissuade boarders.


As cannons grew more sophisticated and materials science could produce large cannons, the cannon obviated the need to board a ship to take it. Now cannons were so powerful they could not be worked around. By the late middle ages, cannons were the way to win a war on the sea, and soon there after, boarding gradually disappeared. So Breaking The Line had to wait for better artillery.




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