Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, perhaps more commonly known as the Admiral Lord Cochrane, was a dashing British naval hero of the Napoleonic wars. His father had been an accomplished chemist, responsible for a number of innovations, but a poor businessman whose attempts to profit from his ingenuity universally resulted in commercial failure. Some of his father's scientific talent appears to have been passed down to Thomas who, during those periods of his life when he wasn't otherwise engaged at sea, occupied himself with scientific invention. He took out a number of patents on such subjects as improvements to gas lighting, convoy lanterns and tubular boilers and became one of the early advocates of steam propulsion.

His naval career and scientific curiosity naturally led him on a search for the ultimate naval weapon. This quest first manifested itself during the battle of Aix Roads in 1809, when Thomas deployed both the traditional fire-ship as well as the novelty of the 'explosion ship' in an attack on a French squadron hiding away in the Aix Roads. Although Thomas was to express his disappointment at the apparent failure to set fire to every single vessel in the French squadron, this attack did effectively cripple the enemy and demonstrated the effectiveness of such weapons.

Later that same year the Walcheren expedition set out, and although Thomas was not part of the naval squadron that accompanied that ill-fated mission, he nevertheless took the opportunity to approach the Admiralty to put forward his own "plan for destroying the French fleet and the Flemish dockyards". This appears to have been a similar scheme to that adopted by him at Aix Roads but with "an important addition" so that it "was now as formidable against fortifications as against fleets". Inexplicably, at least from Cochrane's point of view, the Admiralty rejected his plan. Despite this disappointment, Thomas continued to canvas support for his schemes and eventually in March 1812, he managed to bend the ear of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, who agreed to investigate his ideas.

The Prince set up a committee to consider Thomas's suggestion, comprising William Congreve (the 'inventor' of the rocket) and his son; the Prince Regent's younger brother, Frederick Augustus Hanover, Duke of York; and two Lord Admirals, Lord Keith and Lord Exmouth. The committee eventually concluded that the plan was "effective but inhuman" and rejected the idea based largely on a consideration that the enemy, in this case the French, might retaliate and deploy the same or similar technology against British defences. For his part Thomas Cochrane agreed that he would never make the details of his proposals known to the public and thus his "secret war plan for the total destruction of an enemy's fleet" remained precisely that, a secret.

It was not until many years later, with the publication of the diaries of the Viscount Palmerston in 1908 that the details behind Cochrane's imaginative schemes became known, and thus we can now reveal the details of his 'secret war plan'.

First of all he had developed his earlier concept of the 'explosion ship' into a potentially more effective weapon, the 'temporary mortar'. The idea was to take a hulk, that is a ship without masts and rigging, strip out the decks and pack the hull with a layer of clay, into which was interspersed pieces of scrap metal and sundry obsolete ordnance. The whole lot was to be topped off with a layer of gunpowder and rows of shells and animal carcasses. By the arranging the ballast correctly such ships could be made to heel to one side, securely anchored and then pointed towards the enemy. Various experiments had convinced Cochrane that three such temporary mortars, properly handled, could saturate an area of half a square mile with some 6,000 missiles. Thereby of course, sinking or disabling whatever ships of the enemy's fleet that happened to be within that half square mile.

This was to be augmented with a further idea; the 'sulphur ship', or 'stink vessel'. This followed along the same lines as above except that the upper deck of the hulk would be left intact, so that it could be covered with a layer of charcoal with a further layer of sulphur placed on top. Lighting the charcoal would generate what Cochrane referred to as "noxious effluvia", which could be directed against shore installations. Provided the wind was blowing in the right direction, the resulting clouds of choking gas would force the defenders to flee, thus allowing the gallant British Marines to sharply pop on shore and occupy the now deserted fortifications once the gas had dispersed. (This was undoubtedly the "important addition" that Thomas had first suggested back in 1809 that made his plan now "formidable against fortifications".)

However as we have seen, Cochrane was unable to win official backing for his weapons of mass destruction, if only because the notion that war was an honourable profession for gentlemen still prevailed in many quarters.

After the rejection of his scheme in 1812, Thomas Cochrane ran into some personal difficulties. Convicted of fraud as a result of his involvement in the Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814, he served a year in prison and was dismissed from the Royal Navy. He afterwards went to South America where he commanded both the Chilean and Brazilian navies in their fight for independence against their respective European masters. His enthusiasm for packing ships full of explosives continued unabated, although his attempts to use explosion ships against the Spanish were largely unsuccessful, since the Spanish appeared sufficiently aware of the threat to sink such vessels before they could do any damage. However the mere threat of a combined fire and explosion ship attack was later sufficient to cause the Portuguese to abandon the province of Bahia in Brazil, which no doubt convinced Cochrane that he was thinking along the right lines.

Thomas Cochrane eventually returned to Britain where he was rehabilitated and pardoned in 1832. Reinstated with the rank of rear admiral he returned to active service between 1848 and 1851, when he served as commander-in-chief of the North American and West Indian station. With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 he revived his 'secret war plan' and again campaigned for its adoption against the enemy. His repeated requests for a command were denied (he was regarded as "uncontrollable" by the Admiralty) and so he offered his services as a consultant to Charles Napier, who had been placed in command of the British fleet directed against the Baltic, with a view to deploying his secret weapon against the Russian naval base at Kronstadt. Napier declined this kind offer, but singularly failed to take Kronstadt. Cochrane continued to advocate his 'secret war plan' and now suggested that he personally led an attack on Sebastopol, which he assured the Admiralty could be destroyed in a few hours without any significant loss.

By this time Cochrane had further amended his plan, and had now included the further idea of setting fire to either barrels of tar or naphtha poured on the surface of the sea, in order to produce a smoke screen and add to the enemy's confusion. The public were aware of Cochrane's secret weapon (if not the exact details of what was involved) and there was even talk of raising money by public subscription to fund his particular notions of total war. The Prime Minister of the time, the Viscount Palmerston was apparently on the verge of sanctioning his plan when Sebastopol fell in September 1855. The war ended soon afterwards thereby rendering the whole question academic.

Cochrane died a few years later in 1860 with his secret war plan untried and untested. No subsequent naval commander appears to have had quite the same enthusiasm for blowing up and gassing the enemy, although such notions later became common practice in early twentieth century when war became a decidedly less gentlemanly occupation.


  • Robert Malcomson, During the Napoleonic Wars a British naval officer proposed the use of saturation bombing and chemical warfare.
  • The Gallant Admiral Lord Dundonald
  • The biographies of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald in both the 1911 and modern Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Memoirs of a Fighting Captain (Folio, 2005) Introduction and editoral matter by Brian Vale