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- 19th century wars, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
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- December 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Philip Broke received a young gentleman’s education before joining the Royal Navy at the age of 13. His letter of challenge to Captain Lawrence shows him to be sophisticated and courteous in the extreme:
‘As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags …
I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation. We both have noble motives. You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service that I can render my country …
Letter from Captain Philip Broke RN, to Captain William Lawrence USN
For his commitment to training, Broke was well ahead of his time. He drilled his crews almost daily at the guns, to a standard not previously seen, including teaching his gun captains to individually aim their own guns. Broke understood that to ensure victory is to leave nothing to chance. As Sun Tzu said of the ideal military leader:
‘He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.’
Art of War
Broke believed in the value of preparation. He kept the Shannon’s decks cleared for action, and kept enough ammunition for two or three broadsides on deck, so that it was impossible that she be taken by surprise. He kept few personal belongings in his cabin, and expected as much from his officers.
This single-ship action was bloodier than any before it; marking a waypoint in the history of war, it brought naval warfare into the modern age. Philip Broke single-handedly transformed the art of gunnery, moving it into a technical age of science and accuracy. Broke’s gun crews were able to put enormous weight of shot through a very small area in an enemy ship and the carnage wreaked in the Chesapeake amply demonstrated the deadly effectiveness of this technique.
The battle between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake became one of the legendary actions of the age of sail. ‘Broke of the Shannon’, became embedded in popular culture, and even 50 years later, the battle was being taught to schoolboys as an example of one of the finest hours of the Royal Navy. The lessons of the battle affirm what has been proven time and again throughout the history of war: that discipline, superior training and enlightened leadership will win the day every time.