“Well done Condor!”
by Peter Duckers
In the 1870s, Britain and other European powers were drawn into a deepening crisis in Egypt. In circumstances reminiscent of recent events – banking crises, economic collapse and internal dissent, Egypt began to fall into turmoil. Successive Khedives, influenced by western ideas and desires for material progress, had overspent on ambitious projects (like irrigation and railway construction) and had consequently over-borrowed from a range of European banks and lenders. By 1875, Khedive Ismail’s government was facing bankruptcy – one of the factors which enabled Disraeli’s government to buy out his large shareholding in the Suez Canal, to secure a British interest in its control.
The crisis only deepened. Eventually, in 1876, it was agreed that an International Commission representing Egypt’s major creditors should run the country’s finances and arrange its debt management. Dominated by Britain and France, it included representatives from Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy and others. Not surprisingly, this was exceptionally unpopular amongst elements in Egypt – foreign, Western, Christian control of Egypt’s revenues and spending was not welcome. As the Commission cut expenditure, halted projects and sacked workers, there was growing anti-foreign discontent in the country but it was cuts to the Egyptian Army which eventually lit the blue touch paper.
In the face of massive cuts to the army budget and the consequent loss of thousands of jobs, especially amongst the officer class, the army rose in revolt against the Khedive and his foreign backers in September 1881. Under the leadership of Col. Ahmed Urabi, the Egyptian army forced itself into the government to take control away from the Khedive and his foreign advisors. There began a year of crisis. Anti-foreign riots broke out in parts of Egypt, the most serious in Alexandria in May 1882 when hundreds of Europeans were attacked and 150 killed, amongst them embassy staffs and merchants.
By now, an ardently anti-imperialist Liberal government under William Gladstone had taken power in Britain. He had won office largely on the back of a campaign against Disraeli’s imperial “adventures” in Zululand, Afghanistan and the Transvaal and wanted less than anything to get embroiled in an Egyptian revolt.
But something had to be done to show support for the International Debt Commission, for the new pro-Western Khedive, Tewfik, and – significantly for Britain – for the protection of the vital Suez Canal and other British and foreign interests. In May 1882, a joint Anglo-French naval squadron was dispatched to Alexandria as a show of force – though as commentators at the time noted, it carried no land forces for possible military action ashore. Its mere presence simply inflamed anti-foreign feeling and by no means ended attacks on Europeans; battleships could not patrol the streets of Egyptian towns.
Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian army responded to the presence of foreign warships off its major port by reinforcing the seaward defences of Alexandria, commissioning new gun emplacements and bringing back into a state of defence some of the older batteries and forts; they eventually mounted 293 guns. Equally unsurprisingly, the allied naval command regarded these works as dangerous and requested permission to act against them if need be.
Gladstone and most of his Liberal government detested the idea of using force against Egypt but could not refuse a demand for what was potentially self-defence. The British commander off Alexandria, Vice Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour (later Lord Alecster), was given permission to take aggressive action if he thought that the forts at Alexandria actually posed a threat. At this stage – June/July 1882 – the Anglo-French joint enterprise fell apart in the face of a political crisis in France which left the direction of foreign policy unclear. The French naval squadron off Alexandria eventually withdrew, leaving only Admiral Seymour with elements of the British Mediterranean Fleet to take whatever action he thought necessary.
As the work to defend Alexandria progressed, Seymour grew increasingly alarmed that his ships might become sitting targets if the Egyptian defenders decided to open fire without warning. Demands that the Egyptian army cease the work and disarm some of the forts continued over weeks, but without effect; the Egyptians naturally felt they had every right to defend their own city against a powerful foreign fleet moored offshore. On 9th July Seymour gave formal notification to the Egyptian nationalist government that he would fire on the harbour forts if work on them did not cease; on the 10th – the day the French squadron actually departed, along with all neutral trading vessels – Seymour demanded the surrender of some of the larger forts (especially that at Ras-el-Tin). When no satisfactory answer was received, Seymour gave orders to his captains to prepare for the bombardment of Alexandria’s forts to begin early the next day, 11th July 1882.
Seymour’s squadron of nineteen ships was an impressive and largely modern fleet, providing the Royal Navy’s first opportunity since the Russian War of 1854-56 to try new ships and weaponry against significant shore defences. It comprised the major “ironclad” battleships:
Inflexible: 1876 – 11,000 tons. 4 x 16” guns, 8 x 20-pounders. Turret ship. Crew 484.
Alexandra: 1875 – 9,500 tons. 2 x 11”, 10 x 10” guns. Central Battery ship. Crew 670. Flag.
Sultan: 1876 – 9,200 tons. 8 x 10” , 4 x 9” guns. Central Battery ship. Crew 400.
Superb: 1876 – 9,100 tons. 16 x 10” , 6 x 20 pounder guns. Central battery ship. Crew 534.
Temeraire: 1876 – 8,500 tons. 4 x 11” , 4 x 10” guns. Central Battery ship. Crew 400
Monarch: 1868 – 8,300 tons; 4 x 12”, 2 x 9”, 1 x 7” guns. Turret ship. Crew 515.
Invincible: 1869 – 6,000 tons. 10 x 9” guns, 4 x 64-pounders. Central battery ship. Crew 450.
Penelope: 1876 – 4,500 tons. 8 x 8”, 3 x 40 pounder guns. Central battery ship. Crew 223.
These eight powerful warships would actually undertake the bombardment, but were supported by a range smaller gunboats – like Condor, Cygnet, Decoy and Bittern, whose role was really not to take on shore forts – and other ships in support roles, like Iris, Beacon, Hecla, Helicon and Euphrates.
Seymour ranged his battering ships off the major forts, a distance of over four miles across – with Alexandra, Sultan and Superb at ranges between 1,500 and 1,900 yards off Ras-el-Tin, Fort Ada and Fort Pharos. In this area lay the Khedive’s Palace and the city arsenal. Inflexible and Temeraire lay to the west beyond the actual harbour mole to engage the powerful Fort Mex and six other shore batteries; Monarch, Invincible and Penelope were ranged much closer to the shore, at 1,000-1,300 yards, to operate against Fort Mex and its supports. To the far west of the Egyptian line of defences lay Fort Marabout, a significant fort mounting 24 guns. Initially, it was not included in the bombardment plan, but the small gunboats Condor, Cygnet, Decoy and Bittern were anchored nearby to act against the fort if necessary. Their much slighter armament was not really intended to tackle strong land defences.
With last minute negotiations having failed, at 6.20 a.m. on 11th July the battleships signalled “Ready for Action” and at 6.50, the 11” guns of Seymour’s flagship Alexandra opened the bombardment, signalling the rest of the fleet to begin independent fire. All eight British battleships now engaged their targets, in what was described as a deafening crescendo of noise and soon the whole line of ships was enshrouded in clouds of smoke, which made accurate sighting of the targets difficult for both the naval gunners and the Egyptian defenders. The firing continued from 6.50 a.m. to well beyond midday, the forts being pounded until one by one they fell silent. The Egyptian gunners manned their guns with great bravery and resolution, hitting the British ships on many occasions. But swept by heavy gun fire and rockets and harassed by Gatling and Nordenfeldt machine-guns, the Egyptian gunners could not respond with great accuracy or maintain their defence for very long.
As early as 9.00 a.m., Fort Mex had been just about silenced and by 11.00 it was in ruins, having caused serious damage and casualties, especially to Invincible. Ras-el-Tin, Fort Ada (which blew up at 1.30 p.m.) and other batteries were out of action by 2.00 but the ships continued to fire for over an hour, attacking anything that appeared to be part of the defences, like magazines and arsenals near the forts. Needless to say, overshooting occurred and many other buildings in Alexandria were hit or set on fire, prominent amongst them being the Khedive’s Palace. The total casualties on the British fleet were remarkably light – 5 killed, one died of wounds and 27 wounded.
Alexandra – AB W. Fisher, killed.
AB J. Myers, Capt. Focsle T. Palmer, Pte. G. Talbot, RM, wounded.
Superb – Pte (or Gunner) G. McCharne, RM, killed. Ship’s Cpl. G. Webb, wounded.
Sultan – ABs C. Collins and R. Marshall, killed. Boy J. Dexter, LS. S. Fuller, Bos. Mate J. Gomes, ABs A. Jutson, J. McCarthy, R. Pacey, T. Poingdestre and J. Tussell wounded.
Inflexible – Lt. F.S. Jackson RM (died of wounds); Pte. W. Houghton, RM, wounded.
Invincible- Carptr. W. Shannon, killed. Mids. W. Lumsden, Sto. A. Chusevia, Ord. J. Gill, Boy R. McGuire, Pte. J.W. Moore, RM, AB J. Yolland, wounded.
Penelope – Lt. F.H. Davies, LS H. Dawson and J. Wheadon, Boys L. Holley and A. Jackson, ABs W. Lee and W. McAnalley, Capt. Mast W. Wooll wounded.
The ships took some serious structural damage, especially Inflexible, but nothing which put any of them out of action and nothing which was not quickly repaired in the dockyards in Malta or England. The Egyptian defenders are estimated to have lost up to 550 in killed and wounded but suffered fairly slight damage to their forts and guns: observers considered that they could have been put back into action very quickly.
It was only at about 8.00 a.m. that the westernmost fort, Marabout, actually came into action. Firing into the “flank” of the British naval line, it targeted the ships bombarding Fort Mex – Temeraire, Monarch, Invincible and Penelope. Since no major warship had been deployed against Fort Marabout, its fire was dangerous and distracting. It was at this point that one of those seemingly spontaneous incidents took place which was to be picked up by the British press and later writers on the bombardment and singled out for praise as an example of dynamic and decisive action under fire.
Seeing the potential damage that Fort Marabout’s 24 heavy guns might do to the inshore bombarding ships, Lieut. Commander Lord Charles de la Poer Beresford, the 36-year old commander of the small unarmoured gunboat Condor, took matters into his own hands and went for one of those “make or break” moments that would fully establish – or end – his naval career.#
At 8.30 a.m. he ordered Condor to race towards the fort, knowing quite well that the fort’s guns could blow him out of the water, and amidst a maelstrom of shot and small-arms fire, brought Condor as close as he could to the guns of the fort. He calculated – correctly as it happened – that if he was close enough in, the fort’s main armament could not be depressed enough to hit him. Quickly supported by Bittern, Condor poured fire into the fort from her three guns – two 64-pounders and one 7” rifled gun – and his machine-guns. Remarkably, despite return fire from the fort’s defenders, Condor suffered not a single casualty; both gunboats remained in action for two hours, joined at 10.00 a.m. by the other two by order of Admiral Seymour. Between them they silenced Fort Marabout.
Beresford knew that failure – the possible loss of his ship and/or many its crew – would end his career and he must have been more than relieved to see the signal “Well done Condor!” flying from the mast of Alexandra. Condor’s bold action went down in naval annals and for Beresford the rest is, as they say, history. His dynamic action won him immediate promotion to Captain (and the Order of the Mejidieh) and he was chosen by Wolseley to command the Naval Brigade on the Nile in the Gordon campaign of 1884/85. By the time of his death in 1919, he was Admiral Lord Beresford with the GCVO, GCB and a host of foreign awards. His decorations and medal group were sold in 1987 for the then huge sum of £17,600.
The Egypt Medal of 1882 was awarded for the campaign, with clasp Alexandria 11 July granted to nearly 7,000 naval personnel for service during the bombardment, most to the large capital ships which actually bombarded the forts; those to Condor are particularly popular because of “Charlie” Beresford’s bold and well-reported action.
In the afternoon of 11th July, the first wave of sailors and marines – the only forces available to the admiral –were rowed ashore under cover of Condor and Bittern to spike the remaining guns and secure the damaged or abandoned batteries. More followed on the next day, when the city formally surrendered, to do what they could to establish some sort of order in a city now aflame in many parts, burned by looters and incendiaries rather more than by naval shot and shell. It was the very beginning of what was to be the British invasion of Egypt (culminating with General Wolseley’s great victory at Tel-el-Kebir on 13th September) and – to Gladstone’s consternation – the start of a long, difficult period of involvement in Egypt and in her southern province, the Sudan.