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Navy and naval warfare in Middle-Earth

Aldarion

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Introduction

Despite not featuring prominently, navy and naval operations play a significant role in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In the First Age, elves of Feanor come to Middle Earth from Valinor across the sea; their kinsmen, who had been forced to use the land route, suffer terribly. In the last battle of the Age, host of Valar comes across the sea. In the Second Age, Numenor holds mastery of the sea, exploiting it fully to its strategic, operational, tactical and logistical advantage. In the Third Age, Gondor continues as a naval power, but has to contend with Corsairs of Umbar – Sauron having wisened up to the importance of naval operations.

Primary sources used are History of Middle Earth and Lord of the Rings. Also used are Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, albeit those books are used in Croatian translation instead of English original; I apologize in advance for any issues with reverse-translation.
 

Olorgando

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Naval operations, yes - bur it seems all to in the direction of the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 06 June 1944 - if even that. More often even unopposed landings.
Probably the actions against corsair-held Umbar would fall into the former category - though the action led by Aragorn seems to have been more of a raid to do serious damage, not an attempt at invasion and occupation.
Anyway, naval ships-vs-ships action seems to be entirely absent - at least in published texts of any sort.
 

Aldarion

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Naval operations, yes - bur it seems all to in the direction of the D-Day invasion of Normandy on 06 June 1944 - if even that. More often even unopposed landings.
Probably the actions against corsair-held Umbar would fall into the former category - though the action led by Aragorn seems to have been more of a raid to do serious damage, not an attempt at invasion and occupation.
Anyway, naval ships-vs-ships action seems to be entirely absent - at least in published texts of any sort.
Historically, most naval operations actually were amphibious assaults, or at the very least were carried out in support of land operations. So that is not surprising. Especially since Mortgoth never developed a navy, and Sauron waited until late Third Age to do so - and in fact he did not develop navy, navy fell into his lap.

I guess I should have used "naval operations" instead of "naval warfare" in the title, but whatever.
 

Olorgando

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Historically, most naval operations actually were amphibious assaults, or at the very least were carried out in support of land operations.
If with amphibious you mean opposed (beach) landings like Normandy, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, or on numerous islands in the Pacific during WW II, that's a very new development, practically from WW II. I only recall the attempt by the WW I allies at Gallipoli in that war (the US troops entering the fray disembarked at friendly harbors). A bit of a fiasco, as the Australians and New Zealanders who took heavy casualties there (I believe that is what they commemorate with ANZAC Day). Certainly, hardly any naval ship-vs-ship battle ever decided a war. The Battle of Actium between the forces of Octavian (the future first Emperor Augustus) and the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra on 2 September 31 BC (Wiki) is the only one that comes to my mind.
 

Aldarion

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If with amphibious you mean opposed (beach) landings like Normandy, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, or on numerous islands in the Pacific during WW II, that's a very new development, practically from WW II. I only recall the attempt by the WW I allies at Gallipoli in that war (the US troops entering the fray disembarked at friendly harbors). A bit of a fiasco, as the Australians and New Zealanders who took heavy casualties there (I believe that is what they commemorate with ANZAC Day). Certainly, hardly any naval ship-vs-ship battle ever decided a war. The Battle of Actium between the forces of Octavian (the future first Emperor Augustus) and the combined forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra on 2 September 31 BC (Wiki) is the only one that comes to my mind.
I meant merely disembarking troops to the shore from ships, not an opposed landing. Although amphibious assaults, as opposed to just ambhibious operations, certainly did happen - Crusaders took Constantinople in 1204. by assaulting the sea walls, and Romans I think actually had dedicated siege engines to be mounted on ships for the purpose.

There is a partial list here:

Also this:
 

Alcuin

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Naval power and marine landings are crucial to the history of Second and Third Age Middle-earth, and there is ample reason to believe that this situation continued into the Fourth Age.

Before we discuss the strategy and tactics of naval and marine warfare, let’s discuss the means, specifically the ships that Tolkien seems to indicate were used.

The ships of the Númenóreans are described best in the unfinished tale “Tal-Elmar” in Peoples of Middle-earth:

They [the Dúnedain] came in boats, but not such as some of our folk [the Men of Darkness in Second Age Middle-earth] use… Greater than great houses are the ships of the Go-hilleg [i.e., Dúnedain], and they bear store of men and goods, and yet are wafted by the winds; for the Sea-men spread great cloths like wings to catch the airs, and bind them to tall poles like trees of the forest. Thus they will come to the shore, where there is shelter, or as nigh as they may; and then they will send forth smaller boats… For if they come again it is in other guise. In greater numbers they come then: two ships or more together, stuffed with men and not goods, and ever one of the accursed ships hath black wings. …
The NĂşmenĂłreans appeared suddenly and swiftly along the coastlands and rivers of western Middle-earth, and many of their lesser vessels could come to the shore; the greater ships could not. But we know that Aragorn led the fleet taken from the Corsairs of Umbar up the Anduin by rowing until the south wind came at night and lifted the sails of that fleet.

Classical late medieval and Renaissance ships such as galleons, caravels, cogs, and carracks cannot be rowed. The vessels Tolkien seems to be describing are, first and foremost, based upon the Viking longship: able to beach itself, able to sail into rias and up rivers; to appear suddenly and without warning along the coast, and capable of bringing both men and supplies as needed. Another ancient vessel that would fit this description is the Greek penteconter, similar to that used by the Achaeans to wage the Trojan War as described by Homer. The great Mediterranean galleys of the Classical period, used the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians (for the last, until the Anno Domini, when they had fallen at last to Rome) included such sea-going vessels as the mighty trireme, oared by 200 men, which often rammed other ships with bronze rams in order to breach and sink them. Note that neither triremes nor their medieval and Renaissance descendents, the galleys, could be easily brought ashore, but required sophisticated docks, or as described in “Tal-Elmar”, smaller boats to ferry passengers and cargo to and from the shore.

For ancient sea battles, there is no lack of descriptions. Looking only at Western world history with which most of us are familiar, we can begin with the Sea Peoples of ancient notoriety, who brought down what remained of the Minoan civilization after the eruption of Thera; raided the Hittite kingdoms, perhaps including Troy in the famed Trojan War if the Achaeans are identical to or part of the Sea Peoples; the Philistines; and most notably their raids on ancient Egypt beginning near the end of the reign of Ramses II. Then there are the wars at sea waged by the Carthaginians and the Romans in the three Punic Wars. In the Greco-Persian Wars, the “wooden walls of Athens” and her allies that the Oracle of Delphi predicted would protect the city were in fact its navy, and though the city itself was burned by Xerxes and his armies, the Greeks were able to defeat the Persians at Artemisium, the great oft-forgotten companion naval battle to the ferocious stand of the Greeks led by the 300 Spartans at famed Thermopylae; then at Salamis while Athens burned. Olorgando has mentioned the great Battle of Actium in which Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) defeated the combined fleets of Antony and Cleopatra. At the beginning of the Renaissance, it is easy now for us to forget – indeed, few who read this the first time have ever even been taught! – that the Moslems threatened to overrun all Europe. Only at the great naval Battle of Lepanto on Thursday, October 7, 1571, was the threat of marine invasion of Italy and the southwestern Mediterranean by the Ottoman Empire ended; though on land the threat of Moslem conquest continued until Sunday, September 12, 1683, when Jan III Sobieski King of Poland broke the Third Siege of Vienna in the greatest cavalry charge in history with eighteen thousand mounted knights. (And if that is indeed the greatest cavalry charge in history, it puts into perspective the great charge of the Rohirrim with six thousand mounted knights!) All of these great sea battles were fought with rowing ships that had at least one mounted sail, though the greater vessels might have several sails.

Tolkien was aware of all of these things, of course. In the Second Age, the Númenóreans first established the great port of Vinyalondë, later known as Lond Daer Enedh, at the mouth of the Gwathló; but they sailed up the river, too, all the way to Tharbad, which remained an inland port for seagoing vessels (like New Orleans, Memphis, St Louis, Paris, London, Ghent, Liège, Birmingham, Duisburg, Dortmund, and many others) and river crossing until it was destroyed by flooding in Third Age 2912 following the Fell Winter, when Bilbo was twenty-two years old, only eleven years before Aragorn was born. During the War of the Elves and Sauron, the Númenóreans landed men at Lindon to support Gil-galad when Sauron invaded Eriador, but the greater part of their expeditionary force put in at Vinyalondë, and from there launched a devastating counterattack on Sauron’s rear, annihilating his army and forcing him into ignominious personal retreat to avoid capture. They then made landings all along the west coast of Middle-earth: Umbar became the greatest of their colonies, Pelargir following some four centuries later; in the Third Age, Minas Anor (Minas Tirith) also possessed a quay for seagoing vessels, and Osgiliath was a great inland port; but in the Second Age most of the Númenórean colonies and ports were south of Umbar, along the coasts and seas of Middle-earth, and do not come into Tolkien’s tales.

As the Second Age drew to an end, Ar-PharazĂ´n landed a great force at Umbar, and Sauron humbled himself, and proud Ar-PharazĂ´n took him back to NĂşmenor, where he could never himself have otherwise come. There Sauron seduced the NĂşmenĂłreans to final rebellion against the Valar, and Ar-PharazĂ´n ordered construction of a mighty Armada to assault Valinor, leading to the Downfall of NĂşmenor.

Afterwards in Middle-earth before the end of the Second Age, Isildur sailed to Lindon to his father Elendil in Arnor when Sauron besieged Minas Ithil. In the Third Age, the four Ship-kings of Gondor dominated the coasts and the ancient NĂşmenĂłrean settlements by means of their powerful navy operating from Pelargir: presumably the ancient NĂşmenĂłrean navy had all been destroyed in the ruin of NĂşmenor centuries before, most all of the mariners lost, and many ports damaged or destroyed in the tsunami that followed.

But in the Kin-strife of Gondor, the followers of Castamir the Usurper deserted to Umbar with most of the navy of Gondor. This eliminated in one stroke the naval power of Gondor and transferred it to Umbar: the Corsairs were ever after an implacable enemy of Gondor and a constant threat to its shores, which they raided for plunder and slaves. Aragorn launched a raid against them while he served Ecthelion Steward of Gondor, father of Denethor; but they remained an ever-present danger until with the Dead Men of Dunharrow he conquered them at Pelargir and seized their fleet, which became once more the germ of a new navy for Gondor. From there he led a great force of arms up the Anduin by ship like the Sea-kings of ancient NĂşmenor to victory on the Pelennor Fields.

The history of NĂşmenor and Gondor is filled with naval power and marine warfare, and the great power of the principal DĂşnedain states, Arnor excluded but Umbar included despite its severely degraded NĂşmenĂłrean heritage, was built upon their mastery of the sea.
 

CirdanLinweilin

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At the beginning of the Renaissance, it is easy now for us to forget – indeed, few who read this the first time have ever even been taught! – that the Moslems threatened to overrun all Europe. Only at the great naval Battle of Lepanto on Thursday, October 7, 1571, was the threat of marine invasion of Italy and the southwestern Mediterranean by the Ottoman Empire ended; though on land the threat of Moslem conquest continued until Sunday, September 12, 1683, when Jan III Sobieski King of Poland broke the Third Siege of Vienna in the greatest cavalry charge in history with eighteen thousand mounted knights. (And if that is indeed the greatest cavalry charge in history, it puts into perspective the great charge of the Rohirrim with six thousand mounted knights!) All of these great sea battles were fought with rowing ships that had at least one mounted sail, though the greater vessels might have several sails.
Catholic Armed Pride right here!


CL
 

Olorgando

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Looking only at Western world history with which most of us are familiar, we can begin with the Sea Peoples of ancient notoriety, who brought down what remained of the Minoan civilization after the eruption of Thera; raided the Hittite kingdoms, perhaps including Troy in the famed Trojan War if the Achaeans are identical to or part of the Sea Peoples; the Philistines; and most notably their raids on ancient Egypt beginning near the end of the reign of Ramses II.
I'll PM you on this one. While it may still be widely accepted (for any laypeople who have even the slightest interest in this over 3000-year-old stuff), even in some supposedly professional circles, I have strong reasons to believe that a far more plausible scenario exists for what happened here, trashing some older assumptions about the end of the Bronze Age. Just too extensive to post here.

Naval power and marine landings are crucial to the history of Second and Third Age Middle-earth, and there is ample reason to believe that this situation continued into the Fourth Age.
Second Age, taking it (in JRRT's legendarium as being the Age of NĂşmenor from a human perspective) yes, but only really becoming decisive pretty much at its end. Sauron, having overrun Eriador by 1699 SA in the first War of the Rings (plural, usually referred to as "War of the Elves and Sauron" in guides / companions / lexicons) was evicted from Eriador by 1701 due to a great navy sent by (the later) Tar-Minastir (11th King of NĂşmenor, ruled 1731 to 1869 SA, but born in 1474 SA, so that he led that naval operation as crown prince at the age of 226) to the aid of Gil-galad in 1700 SA. But this wasn't decisive. The Ar-PharazĂ´n mess 1600 (!!!) years later was.

I have always wondered how NĂşmenor, an island of perhaps 168 000 square miles (in a single note to be found in Karen Wynn Fonstad's "Atlas of Middle-earth"), or about 434 000 square kilometers, could have held a population, and never mind armed forces of all kinds, to play the role it did. Granted, the "acreage" is larger that that of reunified Germany (and even Japan!), about the size of Iraq, and smaller that Sweden and Spain in Europe. But we're talking about a time when population densities wer almost microscopic compared to today. Just to throw out a number, the population of the entire world at around 4000 BC (with obvious difficulties of guessing, but once stated by JRRT as being the beginning of the Fourth Age) is estimated at about 1/1000th of today. Meaning Germany, just to take an arbitrary example, would have had a total population of 80 000. That's 30 000 less than the population of the city, Bavaria's smallest "large city" (GroĂźstadt, starting at 100 000) that I live in. Of course, there have been periods in the past where at least regional populations were higher at certain times than they declined to after these high points. Population in Europe declined after a high reached during the Roman climate optimum centered pretty much around the BC/AD divide, with decline to a degree paralleled by the decline of the western Roman Empire. Then the Great Plage of the late 1340s, then again the Thirty Years` War of 1618 to 1648, the brunt of whose losses were mainly borne by the German population that got caught between the basically marauding "armies". My current home town was entirely depopulated for several years due to actions by marauders.

Now NĂşmenor, having for about the first two-thirds of its existence at least some degree of benevolence by the Elves (and indirectly the Valar), populations supportable by agriculture could be assumed to be higher than far into the AD period of the real world. But still, this enmity with Sauron makes me think of a Grat Britain at any time before the 19th century attempting to challenge, say, Ghengis Khan's Mongol hordes (which were not nearly purely Mongol by the time they scared Europeans s**tless). Not realistic.
And we're not talking about masses of native troops being cut to ribbons using spears and bows and arrows and other manually handled weapons against Gatling, Maxim, Vickers and whatnot machine guns (which in JRRT's timeline would have started happening late in the Sixth Age). Of course, the NĂşmenĂłreans had been sailing to M-e for quite a while, and founding what we would call colonies there. Which could then help the mother island against baddies like Sauron. Like the US (former colony, entering late), and the dominions South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand did in WW I. And again in WW II. But then there is the Black NĂşmenĂłrean issue clouding the Third Age.
 

Aldarion

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I have always wondered how NĂşmenor, an island of perhaps 168 000 square miles (in a single note to be found in Karen Wynn Fonstad's "Atlas of Middle-earth"), or about 434 000 square kilometers, could have held a population, and never mind armed forces of all kinds, to play the role it did. Granted, the "acreage" is larger that that of reunified Germany (and even Japan!), about the size of Iraq, and smaller that Sweden and Spain in Europe. But we're talking about a time when population densities wer almost microscopic compared to today. Just to throw out a number, the population of the entire world at around 4000 BC (with obvious difficulties of guessing, but once stated by JRRT as being the beginning of the Fourth Age) is estimated at about 1/1000th of today. Meaning Germany, just to take an arbitrary example, would have had a total population of 80 000. That's 30 000 less than the population of the city, Bavaria's smallest "large city" (GroĂźstadt, starting at 100 000) that I live in. Of course, there have been periods in the past where at least regional populations were higher at certain times than they declined to after these high points. Population in Europe declined after a high reached during the Roman climate optimum centered pretty much around the BC/AD divide, with decline to a degree paralleled by the decline of the western Roman Empire. Then the Great Plage of the late 1340s, then again the Thirty Years` War of 1618 to 1648, the brunt of whose losses were mainly borne by the German population that got caught between the basically marauding "armies". My current home town was entirely depopulated for several years due to actions by marauders.
You cannot take global population as indicative of population of e.g. Numenor, as population was much more sensitive to local variations in climate and such. Roman Italy had population of 10 million in AD1, which gives density of 33 people per square kilometer, or 85,76 people per square mile. Byzantine Empire had population density usually varying between 7 and 9 people per square kilometer (18 - 23 per sq mi).

Going with above, population of Numenor could have been anywhere between 3 038 000 and 14 322 000. Far more than your world density estimate, which does nothing to account for huge deserts, mountain ranges, rain forrests, swamps and other uninhabitable areas - none of which are in evidence in Numenor. Keep in mind that Numenor is described as having basically ideal climate, which means that it would only top out somewhere close to population density achieved by Italy during climate optimum. So Numenor would have reached 14 million people before population pressure forced colonization efforts.

For military, numbers are much more iffy. High end estimate would likely be Byzantine Empire in 1025., which had 250 000 ground troops, maybe 45 000 naval troops (my estimate) and 12 million people (2,46%). In 774 Byzantine Empire had army and navy totalling 118 400 men (80 000 army, 38 400 navy) at population of 7 million (1,69%). In 884 armed forces numbered 154 600 with population of 8 million (1,9%). Roman Empire earlier however had much fewer troops relative to population: 380 000 soldiers at population of 60 - 100 million under Trajan (0,38 - 0,63%). This means that at high-end population estimate, Numenor could have had a military of anywhere between 54 000 and 352 000 people.
 

Olorgando

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NĂşmenor's military would have been heavily weighted towards the navy, similar to the of Great Britain respectively the British Empire. In the Napoleonic wars, despite the victory at the naval Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, it took another 10 years and Waterloo to finally defeat Napoleon. And as in a later war, it was the decimation of Napoleon's troops by Russia and the Russian winter in 1812 that broke his back militarily. He was first decisively defeated at Leipzig in 1813. Britain had a hand in the wars on the Iberian peninsula at the time (Portugal had been her last continental ally) which lasted from 1807 to 1814, but probably mostly in a support role. And at Waterloo it was the timely (or just in time) arrival of BlĂĽcher's Prussian forces that turned the tide.

The Napoleonic wars may actually be those reflecting the situation of the island NĂşmenor against the continental dictator Sauron most closely. One big problem for NĂşmenor: the Easterlings were Sauron's allies, not instrumental in his defeat.

It will always be difficult to compare actual "history" (much of what was written when writing first appeared was not quite what a modern historian might be interested in) with an Elven- and perhaps even Valar-abetted NĂşmenor. Was the Old Kingdom of Egypt, or the first similar entities in Mesepotamia (rather city-states than kingdoms or empires?) a decline from Gondor, even with it, or even an advance? That Egyptian Old Kingdom would have risen about the year 1000 Fourth Age (3000 BC) if one takes JRRT's statement that the FA started about 6000 years ago "seriously". But then how far in Middle-earth did Sauron's control reach in the Second Age, or in the Third Age? He had a paltry 6000 plus years (so from "before" 10000 BC, right into the end of the Ice Age) to effect this. And let us not forget one thing: logistics support for armies was fiendishly difficult before the advent of motorized transport. I recently read something that during the Vietnam war, it took four sacks of rice to sustain a North Vietnamese logistics soldier on the way to South Vietnam and back via the "Ho Chi Minh Trail" - to deliver one sack of rice there ...
 

Aldarion

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That depends on the period. Early on, navy would have been dominant arm, but as colonies expanded in Middle Earth, ground forces would have gained importance, although navy would have continued to play an important role. We know that Sauron attacked Numenorean fortresses in their wars, which means that Numenor had significant land holdings, and land forces to defend them. Still, these fortresses likely were stationed on waterways and depended on the seaborne communications for reinforcement and resupply. Which is what you touch in with logistics, and I believe I mentoned it in the article: Numenorean navy was massive advantage because of logistics. Ships are much more efficient transport tool, especially pre-motorization, which means that Numenorean forces will have enjoyed significant mobility advantage over land-bound opponent.

Question is, why did Gondor abandon navy? All defences we hear about in War of the Ring are land-based. One factor I can think of is the cost, as maintaining warships is extremely expensive, and wooden fleet can literally rot away in just a few years without maintenance (happened to Byzantium...). Aragorn as Thorongil may have taken civilian ships for his assault on Umbar...
 

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