COALING STATIONS. Maritime war in all ages has required that the ships of the belligerents should have the use of sheltered waters for repairs and for replenishment of supplies. The operations of commerce from the earliest days demanded natural harbours, round which, as in the conspicuous instance of Syracuse, large populations gathered. Such points, where wealth and resources of all kinds accumulated, became objects of attack, and great efforts were expended upon their capture. As maritime operations extended, the importance of a seaboard increased, and the possession of good natural harbours became more and more advantageous. At the same time, the growing size of ships and the complexity of fitments caused by the development of the sailing art imposed new demands upon the equipment of ports alike for purposes of construction and for repairs; while the differentiation between warships and the commercial marine led to the establishment of naval bases and dockyards provided with special resources. From the days when the great sailors of Elizabeth carried war into distant seas, remote harbours began to assume naval importance. Expeditionary forces required temporary bases, such as Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba, which was so utilized by Admiral Vernon in 1741. As outlying territories began to be occupied, and jurisdiction to be exercised over their ports, the harbours available for the free use of a belligerent were gradually reduced in number, and it became occasionally necessary to take them by force. Thus, in 1782, the capture of Trincomalee was an object of sufficient importance to justify special effort, and Suffren gained a much-needed refuge for his ships, at the same time compelling his opponent to depend upon the open roadstead of Madras, and even to send ships to Bombay. In this case a distant harbour acquired strategic importance, mainly because sheltered waters, in the seas where Hughes and Suffren strove for naval supremacy, were few and far between. A sailing man-of-war usually carried from five to six months' provisions and water for 100 to 120 days. Other needs required to be met, and during the wars of the French Revolution it was usual, when possible, to allow ships engaged in blockade to return to port every five or six weeks "to refresh." For a sailing fleet acting on the offensive, a port from which it could easily get to sea was a great advantage. Thus Raleigh protested against the use of closely landlocked harbours. "Certain it is," he wrote, "that these ships are purposely to serve His Majesty and to defend the kingdom from danger, and not to be so penned up from casualitie as that they should be less able or serviceable in times of need." Nelson for this reason made great use of Maddalena Bay, in Sardinia, and was not greatly impressed with the strategic value of Malta in spite of its fine natural harbour. The introduction of steam gave rise to a new naval requirement - coal - which soon became vital. Commerce under steam quickly settled down upon fixed routes, and depots of coal were established to meet its needs. Coaling stations thus came into existence by a natural process, arising from the exigencies of trade, and began later to supply the needs of navies.
British coaling stations
For many years there was no inquiry into the war requirements of the British fleet as regards coal, and no attempt to regularize or to fortify the ports at which it was stored. Successful naval war had won for Great Britain many points of vantage throughout the world, and in some cases the strategic value of ports had been proved by actual experience. The extreme importance of the Cape of Good Hope, obscured for a time after the opening of the Suez Canal, was fully realized in sailing days, and the naval conditions of those days to some extent determined the choice of islands and harbours for occupation. There does not, however, appear to have been any careful study of relative strategic values. Treaties were occasionally drafted by persons whose geographical knowledge was at fault, and positions were, in some cases, abandoned which ought to have been retained, or tenaciously held when they might have been abandoned. It was left to the personal exertions of Sir Stamford Raffles to secure such a supremely important roadstead as that of Singapore for the empire. Although, therefore, the relative values of positions was not always recognized, Great Britain obtained as a legacy from sailing days a large number of harbours admirably adapted for use as coaling stations. Since the dawn of the era of steam, she has acquired Aden, Perim, Hong-Kong, North Borneo, Fiji, part of New Guinea, Fanning Island, and many other islands in the Pacific, while the striking development of Australia and New Zealand has added to the long roll of British ports. The coaling stations, actual and potential, of the empire are unrivalled in number, in convenience of geographical distribution, and in resources. Of the numerous British ports abroad which contained coal stores, only the four so-called "fortresses" - Gibraltar, Malta, Halifax and Bermuda - were at first fortified as naval stations after the introduction of rifled ordnance. The term fortress is a misnomer in every case except Gibraltar, which, being a peninsula separated only by a neck of neutral ground from the territory of a foreign power, exists under fortress conditions. Large sums were expended on these places with little regard to principles, and the defences of Bermuda, which were very slowly constructed, are monuments of misapplied ingenuity.
In 1878 great alarm arose from strained relations with Russia. Rumours of the presence of Russian cruisers in many waters, and of hostile projects, were readily believed, although the Russian navy, which had just shown itself unable to face that of Turkey, would at this period have been practically powerless. Widespread fears for the security of coaling stations led to the appointment of a strong royal commission, under the presidency of the earl of Carnarvon, which was instructed to inquire into and report upon the protection of British commerce at sea. This was the first attempt to formulate any principles, or to determine which of the many ports where coal was stored should be treated as coaling stations essential for the purposes of war. The terms of the reference to the commission were ill-conceived. The basis of all defence of sea-borne commerce is a mobile navy. It is the movement of commerce upon the sea during war, not its security in port, that is essential to the British empire, and a navy able to protect commerce at sea must evidently protect ports and coaling stations. The first object of inquiry should, therefore, have been to lay down the necessary standard of naval force. The vital question of the navy was not referred to the royal commission, and the four fortresses were also strangely excluded from its purview. It followed inevitably that the protection of commerce was approached at the wrong end, and that the labours of the commission were to a great extent vitiated by the elimination of the principal factor. Voluminous and important evidence, which has not been made public, was, however, accumulated, and the final report was completed in 1881. The commissioners recalled attention to the extreme importance of the Cape route to the East; they carefully examined the main maritime communications of the empire, and the distribution of trade upon each; they selected certain harbours for defence, and they obtained from the War Office and endorsed projects of fortification in every case; lastly, they condemned the great dispersion of troops in the West Indies, which had arisen in days when it was a political object to keep the standing army out of sight of the British people, and had since been maintained by pure inadvertence. Although the principal outcome of the careful inquiries of the commission was to initiate a great system of passive defence, the able reports were a distinct gain. Some principles were at last formulated by authority, and the information collected, if it had been rendered accessible to the public, would have exercised a beneficial influence upon opinion. Moreover, the commissioners, overstepping the bounds of their charter, delivered a wise and statesmanlike warning as to the position of the navy.
Meanwhile, the impulse of the fears of 1878 caused indifferent armaments to be sent to Cape Town, Singapore and Hong-Kong, there to be mounted after much delay in roughly designed works. At the same time, the great colonies of Australasia began to set about the defence of their ports with commendable earnestness. There is no machinery for giving effect to the recommendations of a royal commission, and until 1887, when extracts were laid before the first colonial Conference, the valuable report was veiled in secrecy. After several years, during which Lord Carnarvon persistently endeavoured to direct attention to the coaling stations, the work was begun. In 1885 a fresh panic arose out of the Panjdeh difficulty, which supplied an impetus to the belated proceedings. Little had then been accomplished and the works were scarcely completed before the introduction of long breech-loading guns rendered their armaments obsolete.
The fortification of the coaling stations for the British empire is still proceeding on a scale which, in some cases, cannot easily be reconciled with the principles laid down by the president of the cabinet committee of defence. At the Guildhall, London, on the 3rd of December 1896, the duke of Devonshire stated that "The maintenance of sea supremacy has been assumed as the basis of the system of imperial defence against attack from over the sea. This is the determining factor in fixing the whole defensive policy of the empire." It was, however, he added, necessary to provide against "the predatory raids of cruisers"; but "it is in the highest degree improbable that this raiding attack would be made by more than a few ships, nor could it be of any permanent effect unless troops were landed." This is an unexceptionable statement of the requirements of passive defence in the case of the coaling stations of the British empire. Their protection must depend primarily on the navy. Their immobile armaments are needed to ward off a raiding attack, and a few effective guns, well mounted, manned by well-trained men, and kept in full readiness, will amply suffice.
If the command of the sea is lost, large expeditionary forces can be brought to bear upon coaling stations, and their security will thus depend upon their mobile garrisons, not upon their passive defences. In any case, where coal is stored on shore, it cannot be destroyed by the fire of a ship, and it can only be appropriated by landing men. A small force, well armed and well handled, can effectually prevent a raid of this nature without any assistance from heavy guns. In war, the possession of secure coal stores in distant ports may be a great advantage, but it will rarely suffice for the needs of a fleet engaged in offensive operations, and requiring to be accompanied or met at prearranged rendezvous by colliers from which coal can be transferred in any sheltered waters. In the British naval manœuvres of 1892, Admiral Sir Michael Seymour succeeded in coaling his squadron at sea, and by the aid of mechanical appliances this is frequently possible. In the Spanish-American War of 1898 some coaling was thus accomplished; but Guantanamo Bay served the purpose of a coaling station during the operations against Santiago. Watering at sea was usually carried out by means of casks in sailing days, and must have been almost as difficult as coaling. As, however, it is certainty of coaling in a given time that is of primary importance, the utilization of sheltered waters as improvised coaling stations is sure to be a marked feature of future naval wars. Although coaling stations are now eagerly sought for by all powers which cherish naval ambitions, the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands by the United States being a case in point, it is probable that they will play a somewhat less important part than has been assumed. A fleet which is able to assert and to maintain the command of the sea, will not find great difficulty in its coal supply. Moreover, the increased coal endurance of ships of war tends to make their necessary replenishment less frequent. On the other hand, the modern warship, being entirely dependent upon a mass of complex machinery, requires the assistance of workshops to maintain her continuous efficiency, and unless docked at intervals suffers a material reduction of speed. Prolonged operations in waters far distant from home bases will therefore be greatly facilitated in the case of the Power which possesses local docks and means of executing repairs. Injuries received in action, which might otherwise disable a ship during a campaign, may thus be remedied. During the hostilities between France and China in 1884, the French ship "La Galissonnière" was struck by a shell from one of the Min forts, which, though failing to burst, inflicted serious damage. As, by a technical fiction, a state of war was not considered to exist, the "La Galissonnière" was repaired at Hong-Kong and enabled again to take the sea. Local stores of reserve ammunition and of spare armaments confer evident advantages. Thus, independently of the question of coal supply, modern fleets employed at great distances from their bases require the assistance of ports furnished with special resources, and a power like Japan with well-equipped naval bases in the China Sea, and possessing large sources of coal, occupies, for that reason, a favoured position in regard to naval operations in the Far East. As the term "coaling station" refers only to a naval need which can often be satisfied without a visit to any port, it appears less suitable to modern conditions than "secondary base." Secondary bases, or coaling stations, when associated with a powerful mobile navy, are sources of maritime strength in proportion to the services they can render, and to their convenience of geographical position. In the hands of an inferior naval power, they may be used, as was Mauritius in 1809-1810, as points from which to carry on operations against commerce; but unless situated near to trade routes, which must be followed in war, they are probably less useful for this purpose than in sailing days, since convoys can now be more effectively protected, and steamers have considerable latitude of courses. Isolated ports dependent on sea-borne resources, and without strong bodies of organized fighting men at their backs are now, as always, hostages offered to the power which obtains command of the sea.
(G. S. C.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)