Captain Hornblower in Space: Naval Warfare and Science Fiction

Some years ago came across a personal website whose owner had listed his favourite works of science fiction and had included the Hornblower novels. He had stated that he was quite serious in classifying the adventures of C.S. Forester’s inestimable hero as science fiction.

In fact difference between stories about Nelson’s navy and some science fiction is not as great as you might imagine. The adventures of Horatio Hornblower heavily involve a technology that is not, at the current time, in use by mankind. They differ from science fiction only in that the technology they involve has been superseded; as opposed to yet to be invented.

Consider huge fighting machines, the most powerful fighting machines in the world. Constructed of wood and powered by the wind, they sail the oceans of the world. They can operate alone, or in great fleets. They can be at sea for literally years at a time, never touching port, being re-provisioned from tenders. It does begin to sound a bit like a science fiction story, set on a world a couple of centuries behind present-day Earth.

Of course, these stories are not science fiction, they are based firmly on historical fact. But it would be interesting to see how much science fiction they have inspired. The late Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was inspired in part by the Hornblower novels – one Next Generation episode features a Federation starship named the USS Sutherland, in honour of the 74 gun ship-of-the-line skippered by Hornblower in one of his many run-ins with the French. And when – many years ago now, of course – Star Trek premiered on BBC Television, the Radio Times very aptly introduced Captain James T. Kirk as a “space-going Captain Hornblower” .

Naval warfare in the days of sail might have also at least partly inspired an ingenious series of novels by the late Bob Shaw. The “Ragged Astronaut” trilogy envisaged a war between the humanoid inhabitants of two planets so close together that their atmospheres touched. Though technologically about as advanced as the Earth of Napoleonic times, the Landers and Overlanders were able to constrict a fleet of “wooden spaceships” which fought in the gravitationally neutral plane between the twin planets (Shaw got round the scientific implausibility of such a planetary system by setting the series in a parallel universe where different laws of physics and mathematics applied – for example the mathematical constant pi was exactly three).

Naval warfare has made its mark on science fiction in other ways. How often, for example, is the term “battlecruiser” encountered in novels and movies dealing with space warfare? “Battlecruiser” conjures up a vision of a fast, powerful warship. It somehow sounds more impressive than a battleship, the latter suggestive of a sturdy but lumbering battlewagon. Up to and during World War I, this was in fact a fairly accurate picture, and even admirals were seduced by battleship-sized warships, mounting comparable firepower, but capable of much greater speed.

The battlecruiser was the brainchild of the remarkable Admiral Sir John Fisher, who revolutionised warship design in the early years of the last century. At that time cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were lightly armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. In an era before radar and aircraft, they acted as the “eyes” of a battle-group, and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight.

Many years ago, I explained this to a friend over a few beers and he asked me what would happen if you put a high-calibre armament into a fast, lightly armoured ship. “You’d have a battlecruiser”, I said. In fact it isn’t quite as simple as that. In 1906 Fisher came up with the idea of an “all-big-gun” warship. HMS Dreadnought dispensed with secondary armament and used Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines as prime movers. She displaced no more than any other battleship of the time but she was significantly faster and had more than twice the fire-power of any other ship afloat.

HMS Invincible was a spinoff from this design – she was even faster, comparably armed (actually she dropped a couple of 12-inch guns) but her hull was only lightly armoured. Adm. Fisher believed that her speed would keep her out of trouble. The press dubbed the new ship a “battleship-cruiser” and later (because it was somewhat easier on the tongue) a “battlecruiser”.

Battlecruisers scored an early success. The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 found a powerful German battle group in the South Atlantic under the command of Admiral Maximillian von Spee, who was flying his flag in the heavy cruiser SMS Scharnhorst (not to be confused with the later battleship of that name). On 1 November 1914, von Spee’s fleet annihilated a British force at Coronel off the coast of Chile. The cruisers HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were sunk with all hands and only the light cruiser HMS Glasgow and an auxilliary vessel escaped the rout.

Not for the last time, a British military debacle in the South Atlantic led to a swift counterstroke, and two Invincible-class battlecruisers under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee were dispatched on a mission of retribution. On 8 December 1914 the two fleets clashed off the Falkland Islands and Scharnhorst and her sister ship Gneisenau proved to be no match for the British battlecruisers, which could both outrun them and outgun them. The tables were turned, and although von Spee’s ships put up a courageous fight, only the light cruiser SMS Dresden (temporarily) escaped destruction. Despite the best efforts of the British to rescue survivors, 1871 German sailors lost their lives, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

But the battlecruiser’s light hull armour was to prove its Achilles heel. The British lost three spectacularly at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, leading Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty to memorably complain that “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. The truth was that battlecruisers were simply not capable of slugging it out on an equal basis with battleships and Fisher’s contention that “speed is armour” proved to be tragically naive. Sadly, the lessons of Jutland weren’t properly learned and in 1941, HMS Hood, one of the largest and most powerful ships in the world, suffered the same fate while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. Only three men survived.

By this time, advances in naval technology had made the type obsolete and battleships capable of thirty knots were being built, including the magnificent Iowa class, which saw active service with the US Navy as late as the 1990s.

Battleships and aircraft carriers are the largest moveable fighting machines ever constructed, and the temptation to envisage space-going equivalents has proved irresistible to many a SF writer. I myself made use of it (and many other concepts) in my unpublished novel The War in Time’s River. Though this work never found a buyer, I was rather flattered that many of its ideas were subsequently used in the highly-acclaimed SF drama series Babylon 5, though (to the best of my knowledge) nobody involved with the series ever saw a draft of my story.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author