Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thinking Outside the Box: Lessons From Military History, Part I

Military history has a thing or two to teach us about life. Today’s and tomorrow’s two-part lesson involves thinking outside the box. Our case study focuses on two naval battles that took place two thousand years apart. The first was essentially a land battle fought on the water. The second a water battle fought deep inland.

The Battle of Mylae, 260 BC

The Western Mediterranean wasn’t big enough to accommodate two expanding superpowers. Rome was engaged in a land grab out from the Italian Peninsula while Carthage had a largely sea-based empire that extended up from North Africa into Spain and Sicily.

When the two finally butted heads in the First Punic War, it became evident that controlling the open seas was the key to victory. As inheritors of the Phoenician sailing tradition, Carthage had the decided advantage. Rome was faced with the prospect of building a fleet from scratch and then figuring out port from starboard.

They accomplished this in part by developing perhaps the first "simulators" in history, fabricating mock-up boats on land in which to train rowers and sailors.

Naval strategy of the day called for maneuvering one’s vessels into ramming and sinking the enemy ships. Rome’s survival depended on fighting naval battles on their own terms, which meant developing a strategy for fighting land battles at sea. Their solution was the corvus, a pivoting boarding device that hooked onto enemy ships.

The two fleets - about 130 ships on each side - met off of Mylae off the northern coast of Sicily. The Romans waited for the Carthaginians to initiate the action. When the enemy ships closed in, the Romans locked in their boarding devices and their soldiers swarmed aboard. The land battle at sea was joined.

The Carthaginians lost 50 ships and were forced to retreat. A succeeding battle resulted in further major losses.

In the end, the corvus proved a hazard in rough seas, forcing the Romans to adopt conventional naval tactics, but by this time they were real sailors.

By thinking outside the box - figuring out how to fight land battles at sea - the Romans accomplished the impossible, beating the highly favored Carthaginians at their own game, on their own “turf.”

To be continued ...

Next: The Battle of Valcour Island, 1776

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