The invention of Greek fire in 673 increased the use of fire ships, at first by the Greeks and afterward by other nations as they came into possession of the secret of manufacturing this compound. In 951 and again in 953 Russian fleets narrowly escaped destruction by fire ships.
Warships of the age of sail were highly vulnerable to fire. Made of wood, with seams caulked with tar, ropes greased with fat, and stores of gunpowder, there was little that would not burn. Accidental fires destroyed many ships, so fire ships presented a terrifying threat.
With the wind in exactly the right direction a fire ship could be cast loose and allowed to drift onto its target, but in most battles fire ships were equipped with skeleton crews to steer the ship to the target (the crew were expected to abandon ship at the last moment and escape in the ship's boat). Fire ships were most devastating against fleets which were at anchor or otherwise restricted in movement. At sea, a well-handled ship could evade a fire ship and disable it with cannon fire. Other tactics were to fire at the ship's boats and other vessels in the vicinity, so that the crew could not escape and therefore might decide not to ignite the ship, or to wait until the fire ship had been abandoned and then tow it aside with small maneuverable vessels, such as galleys.
During the period of the Crusades their use was frequent. In 1370 the English used them at Zuruckee. Their use peaked during the 18th and 19th centuries, with fireships such as HMS Pluto a permanent part of any naval fleet, ready to be deployed whenever necessary.
In the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1832, Greek fire ships were manned and sailed alongside a big Turkish ship (the flagship, if possible), attached to her with hooks, ropes and grips, and then set on fire by the captain alone when the crew was in the escape boat. As the small fire ships were much more manoeuvrable than enemy ships of the line, especially in the coasts of the Aegean Sea where the islands, islets, reefs, gulfs and straits restrained big ships from being easily moved, they were a serious danger for the ships of the Turkish fleet. Many naval battles of the Greek war of independence were won by the use of fire ships.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century steam propulsion and the use of iron, rather than wood, in shipbuilding gradually came into use, making fire ships useless, although ships or boats packed with explosives could still be effective. Such a case was Operation Chariot of World War II, in which the old destroyer HMS Campbeltown was packed with explosives and rammed into the dry dock at Saint-Nazaire, France, to deny its use to the battleship Tirpitz, which could not drydock anywhere else on the French west coast.
In 1946, as part of Operation Crossroads, the American landing ship demonstrated the potential of explosives ships containing nuclear weapons. A total of eight vessels were sunk in the test in addition to LSM-60 (which was obliterated), including the aircraft carrier . The successful attack by terrorists in a speedboat packed with explosives on the USS Cole in 2000 is another extension of the idea.
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