Ship Maneuvers in Patrick O'Brian's Ionian Mission

The Fight between Surprise and two Turkish Ships

Edited and detailed by C. F. Keller




At the end of the Ionian Mission, Jack is trying to force the French out of port in Dalmatia when a minor Turkish ruler captures his transports (with cannon for his land assault) and puts to sea to claim his new power. The geography of this entire adventure is difficult to construct due to POB's use of fictious place names. However enough are historically correct that we can be certain it takes place in the waters off Dalmatia (present day Albania) east of the boot of Italy. Jack is organizing a land attack from one coastal town across a narrow high ridge to another and it is clear that they are located about a day's sail (50-100 miles) north of the island of Corfu.

As Jack sails south to meet his adversary POB's location descriptions become essentially fanciful. He has Surprise sailing all night on a westerly course which would bring it very close to Italy, but the encounter takes place within sight of the Albanian mainland!! I have played with this, assuming tacking in the constant SE breeze and placing Surprise among some islands north of Corfu, but nothing is very satisfactory. The problem seems to be that the actual historic encounter took place in the Agean Sea east of Greece thus reversing the relative mainland/sea directions. In mirror imaging the locations and pasting in the actual battle maneuvers, POB probably didn't get everything right. My solution is to ignore the setting and to concentrate on the battle itself with its interesting maneuvers---two ships against one. I am indebted to Bruce Trinque for pointing out that this battle actually happened and for sending me a detailed description complete with chart of it from Naval History of Great Britain by William James, 1886. POB's account is essentially the same until near the end when the action begins to die down. POB then adds a more exciting finish complete with Turkish ships colliding, British boarding party crossing one ship to get to the other, etc. My description and critique thus is aided by this actual account.

The Encounter

Note: all page numbers are from the Norton paper back. When the Turkish ships are first sighted, the wind is out of the south east (p. 352). POB has Surprise sailing on a larboard tack (roughly heading a bit south of west, p. 347 "west by south a half west"---dashed line on Chart 1) with the Turkish ships, frigate Torgud and brig, Kitabi, sailing large coming up from the south, a bit east. After the Turks are sighted, Jack changes course to close with the Turks: "Surprise stood towards them on the larboard tack, the southeast wind one point free", p. 353 (see Chart 1, point 1). The situation as the ships approach one another is given on, p. 356,"the ships had approached within random shot, the Turks on Surprise's starboard bow holding their course without the slightest deviation, with Kitabi abreast of the Torgud, a quarter of a mile to leeward."

A problem here: when first sighted, the Turks are said to be approaching on the larboard beam, p. 352; but in three subsequent references they are said to be approaching to starboard: p. 353--"Leaning over the hammocks in the starboard netting, Jack watched them over the sparkling sea." .." p. 356 "Turks on Surprise's starboard bow", and "Bonden ... kept the starboard chaser steadily trained on Torgud's bows.." But in apparent contradiction we read on p.353 that the approach seems to be from larboard--"Surprise stood towards them on the larboard tack, the south-east wind one point free." Consider Chart 1. To accommodate these directions, I put the Turks a bit east of south, heading north, a bit east. Thus at about 2 miles separation I have them crossing from Surprise's larboard to starboard side.

Going back to the story, we appreciate the dilemma Jack faces. He must quickly engage the larger ship, Torgud, yet must avoid a three ship engagement. He accomplishes this with a splendid move. As the ships come together, I believe, it is customary for the hailing ship to pass under the stern of the other and come up in its lee. This would, however, put Surprise between the two enemy ships. To avoid this and to surprise the Turks, Jack waits till the last possible moment then he gives the order: "Mr. Gill, wear round to the starboard tack and lay me within pistol-shot of his starboard side", p. 357. This puts the Torgud between Surprise and Kitabi, and the Turk gun crews, expecting him on their larboard side, must quickly change sides. Jack calls for surrender, Turks refuse, immediately Surprise fires its larboard guns, and the battle is engaged.

The Battle

In Chart 1, I have the two ships heading north a bit west on a parallel course with Kitabi a quarter mile in Torgud's lee. POB says Surprise's gun crews are firing every 70 seconds! This heavy engagement is complicated because the smoke from Surprise is blown across to Torgud and visibility is poor. After taking quite a pounding (I abbreviate this part on the Chart) Torgud turns down wind to get closer to Kitabi for support. Kitabi commences firing (Chart 1, point 3) , but now the smoke is blowing forward so that both ships can see each other plainly, and Torgud with its vastly larger number of men turns towards Surprise in an attempt to board her. Surprise makes a desperation turn to starboard and both ships come up into the wind (Chart 2, point 4). Surprise just makes stays, but Torgud is taken aback, and must fall off wearing to larboard as Surprise comes around. Nevertheless, Torgud ends up to windward and Kitabi sees its chance to engage (Chart 2, point 5). Surprise delivers six broadsides devastating Kitabi which disengages. Surprise resumes its chase of Torgud and overtakes it, but this time to larboard. A heavy exchange of these undamaged sides takes place and Torgud again attempts to board (Chart 2, point 6). But Surprise has anticipated this attempt, drops her forecoarse, and shoots ahead.

Here POB gives us an inconsistency that must be a mistake, for he says that immediately after Surprise shoots ahead, she crosses Torgud's stern, raking her. This simply isn't possible unless Surprise tacks - an unlikely manuever and one that would bring Surprise up on Torgud's larboard. But we are told she is on t'other side when the fighting recommences. In the actual battle the British ship does indeed cross the Turk's stern raking her, but from a very different situation as it is here that the two accounts diverge. I choose to ignore this manuever, but would be happy for some other explanation.

As a consequense of the boarding attempt the sides change once more and they reengage with Surprise to starboard (Chart 3, point 7). Only a few Turkish guns come into action but they do critical damage to Surprise's rudder, and she falls behind while Torgud races for the safety of a harbor in the distance. Meanwhile Kitabi has come up and races after Torgud (p. 363). And so, as Surprise with rudder repaired comes up, she finds Kitabi directly between her and Torgud (Chart 3, point 8) .

Here is another problem. As Surprise comes within range, Jack tells Bonden not to fire the starboard bow-chaser for fear of slowing Torgud which would make it difficult to board her as he intends. (p. 363). This would put Surprise on Torgud's larboard side. It seems reasonable for simplicity to keep Surprise coming up on the starboard side, but to match the story, I choose to use the broken rudder to take the Surprise a bit to larboard. Kitabi also can be logically put to Torgud's larboard, and we finish the engagement from this orientation.

Jack puts a bow chaser ball over Kitabi which in haste turns directly into Torgud now moving slowly and sinking. Kitabi runs her aboard losing her foremast across Torgud. Jack calls for Surprise to be put athwart Kitabi's stern and the three ships come together in roughly in the form of an H with Kitabi forming the cross bar (Chart 3, point 9). The Surprises board first Kitabi and then Torgud, and the action is ended with Mowett's famous remark (p. 367): "Give you joy, sir. You have come it the Nelson's bridge at last." It is left as an exercise for the reader to explain this reference to one of Nelson's great victories.

Charles Keller

35* 53' N 106* 19' W

Text copywrite 1997 Charles Keller. Please direct comments to him at

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