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Chinese gunboats off Malta in 1879

On September 27, 1879, the British newspaper The Graphic ran a news feature stating that four gunboat vessels built by Sir William Armstrong and Co. of Laird, Birkenhead, the UK, for the Chinese Government, had berthed in the Malta harbour after having completed their trials under the command of Captain Long, R.N.

These small but powerful gunboats intended for coast defence formed part of the third instalment of a fleet of unarmoured gunboats commissioned by the Chinese Government

The little fleet had sailed from Portsmouth in July, 1879, after having tried their guns and gone through a number of manoeuvres in the presence of Chinese Minister Marquis Tseng and a large gathering of naval authorities.

Assigned as Epsilon-class vessels, the four vessels were named Epsilon, Zeta, Etha and Theta.

These small but powerful gunboats intended for coast defence formed part of the third instalment of a fleet of unarmoured gunboats commissioned by the Chinese Government.

The Epsilon-class gunboat built for the Chinese Government was 127 feet long, with a 29-foot beam, a draught of nine feet six inches and a displacement of 440 tons. She was propelled by two pairs of compound engines, which gave her a speed of 10 knots forward or nine backward – being double-ended, she could be driven either way.

The hull was divided into water-tight compartments. No rigging of any sort was provided. Its armament included a 15-inch, 35-ton muzzle loader mounted at the bow. This was designed to be raised and lowered on a hydraulic mechanism so that stability would not be compromised when making sea passages. Only five men were required to attend it when in action.

The gun was aimed by pointing the whole vessel, since the mounting allowed for elevation but not traversing. The crew would have numbered about 30 men.

The previously delivered gunboats, commissioned originally in 1875, belonged to the Jiansheng-class. The two vessels named Fusheng and Jiansheng, of 256 tonnage and carrying a 10-inch gun, were destroyed at the Battle of Fuzhou in 1884. The sub-sequent gunboats produced by Sir William Armstrong and Co. were larger.

The first four delivered before 1879 belonged to the Alpha-class (two vessels named Alpha and Beta with 420 tonnage carrying an 11-inch gun – scrapped in 1895), and to the Gamma- class vessels (two vessels named Gamma and Delta with 420 tonnage carrying a 15-inch gun decommissioned in 1905).

The subsequent group of British-built vessels to be delivered in 1880 belonged to the Iota-class (three vessels named Iota, Kappa, and Lambda with 440 tonnage carrying a 15-inch gun and 2 x12 pdr guns).

A total of 13 ships were thus built by William Armstrong & Co. Ltd for the Chinese Government. While the last 11 of these were originally named after the Greek alphabet, they were quickly given Chinese names.

Two further gunboats of this form, named Tiong Sing (200 tonnage with 6.7-inch gun) and Hoi Tung Hung (430 tons with 15-inch gun) were built in Shanghai in the subsequent years, though the latter was constructed from wood sheathed in iron.

Six of the British-made gunboats bearing the new Chinese names –Zhenbei/Chen-pei, Zhenbian/ Chen-pien, Zhendong/Chen-tung, Zhennan/Chen-nan, Zhenxi/Chen-hsi and Zhenzhong/Chen-chung – were transferred to the Beiyang Fleet set up in 1871 to patrol the northern waters of China.

Originally considered the weakest of the four Chinese regional navies, the Beiyang Fleet soon became the second- largest regional navy when Li Hongzhang allotted funds to strengthen it.

The Chinese gunboats belonged to the ‘flat-iron’ or Rendel gunboats category. Characterised by their small size, a low freeboard and the absence of masts (though some Rendel-type gunboats including the Jiansheng, Alpha and Epsilon-class vessels were fitted with masts), these gunboats appeared to physically resemble the flat iron used for ironing clothes during the 19th century, thus their nickname.

In 1867, Sir W.G. Armstrong & Co. signed an agreement with the UK-based Charles Mitchell Shipyard to design and build the boats. George Rendel was put in charge of the new venture.

The Armstrong company would provide the armaments with the assistance of the leading gunnery expert at the time, Admiral Sir Astley Cooper-Key, who turned these craft into gunboats designed for defensive coastal operations.

These strongly-built vessels continued to be built until 1894, with some remaining in service well after World War II.

These small vessels had a powerful punch and were clearly attractive to the small- and medium-sized navies of the late 19th century, since they offered the status of big guns without the price tag associated with contemporary cruisers and battleships.

Their punch was increasingly augmented as evidenced by the increase in gun size from 10-inch in the Jiansheng-class vessels to the 15-inch gun in the Iota-class vessels. Unfortunately, these gunboats were all but useless except in flat calm.

The defining failure of flat-iron gunboats as coastal defence weapons occurred in China, where British-built gunboats were used against both the French (at the Battle of Fuzhou in 1884) and the Japanese (at the Battle of Weihaiwei in 1895).

The flat-iron gunboats found themselves outmanoeuvred and smothered by shellfire from the more stable enemy cruisers; many failed to get off more than one or two shots.

The original Jiansheng-class vessels were destroyed at the Battle of Fuzhou in 1884. On February 12, 1895 at the Battle of Weihaiwei, the Japanese destroyed the Chinese-made Tiong Sing and the Hoi Tung Hung and captured six of the British-made Chinese Rendel gunboats.

The captured vessels included the four vessels belonging to the Epsilon-class that had passed through Malta in 1879 and two of the Iota-class vessels produced in 1880.

The Japanese rearmed the six captured Chinese gunboats with 11-inch guns, supported by a further two three-inch guns. These were listed for disposal in 1906 and were broken up by 1907.

• Two frigates and a supply ship of the Chinese Navy are in the Grand Harbour on a rare visit. The modern, Chinese-designed Huangshan and Hengshan and the replenishment ship Qinghaihu, a Russian design, sailed in slowly under bright sunshine on Tuesday. They are berthed at Pinto Wharf and will be open to the public between 2 and 5pm today.

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