Nile Gunboats

Sketch of Gunboat MelikIn 1896 when Kitchener, the Sirdar (Commander-in-Chief) of the Egyptian Army, set out to re-conquer the Sudan in the name of the Khedive of Egypt, eleven years after the death of General Gordon, he knew that not only had he to defeat a great host of dauntless Mahdist warriors, but also to overcome the huge logistical problem of supplying 25,000 men and 10,000 beasts of burden over great distances in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world. Control of the River Nile was vital.

The river and the railway which was to be constructed across the Nubian Desert were the principle supply routes from Egypt for an army which by the time of the build-up for the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898, was consuming about 37 tons of supplies daily.

Ships of the gunboat Flotilla were crucial to the success of the whole enterprise. In the Dongola campaign of 1896, the first stage if the re-conquest, only four elderly stern-wheelers were available.

By early 1898 the Flotilla had grown to ten vessels including the new twin-screw armoured gunboats SHEIKH, SULTAN, and MELIK. These were shipped in sections from England through the Suez Canal to Ismailia then towed up the Sweet Water Canal and the Nile to Wadi Halfa. Here the sections were loaded on to the railway under the supervision of Major “Monkey” Gordon, Royal Engineers, a nephew of General Gordon. The railway brought them to Abadiya on the Nile where they were unloaded under the supervision of Lieutenant (later Sir George) Gorringe, Royal Engineers. Sleepers, rails and ropes were used since no cranes were available. Gorringe launched all the sections and began assembling the vessels when he was joined by Major Gordon who took over responsibility for the final commissioning.

The Gunboat flotilla was mainly commanded by officers of the Royal Navy, including Lieutenant David Beatty, later famous as Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. However, the MELIK was commanded by “Monkey” Gordon. With their shallow draft the gunboats, towing barges, could sometimes make only 2 knots against the strong current and thus became known as “Monkey Gordon’s Greyhounds”!

The crews were a remarkable mixture of British, Egyptian and Sudanese service personnel and civilians of many nationalities. The gunboats bristled with weapons – 12½ and 12 pounders, 4-inch howitzers and Maxim machine-guns – manned by Royal Marines. Some, including MELIK, mounted powerful searchlights, which helped to discourage a much-feared Mahdist night attack before the Battle of Omduman. After playing an important role in that decisive action, later, on 4th September 1898, MELIK carried the troops to Khartoum for a moving memorial service for General Gordon.

After the campaign most of the river gunboats remained in service with the Egyptian Army and later the Sudan Defence Force. But gradually, like all Old Soldiers they faded away until today, with the centenary of the Battle of Omdurman in sight, only the MELIK and one of General Gordon’s gunboats, the BORDEIN survives.

For many years the MELIK has served as the clubhouse for the Blue Nile Sailing Club. Recently however, she was washed up on to the bank of the Nile in an exceptional flood. Now she lies in a sand berth awaiting restoration, a task of immediate concern to the Melik Society and for which negotiations with the Sudanese Government are already in progress.

The Nile Gunboat Flotilla

Commander C Keppel RN
Lt H F Tailbot RN
Lt W H Cowan
Lt C M Staveley RN
El Kaimakam W S Gordon (RE)
Lt J B Sparks RN
El Bimbashi E O Newcombe (RE)
Lt D Beatty RN
El Bimbashi A G Stevenson (RE)
Lt the Hon A Hood RN