An analysis of the prospective Euron vs Redwyne Fleets in “The Winds of Winter”
The fan theorists have spoken; Euron is a diabolical magical third act villain and may be the greatest threat to Westeros. I must admit that when reading Asha’s, Damphair and Victarion’s A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons chapters, I found Euron to merely be a manipulative politician with competent battlefield skills. As Euron sails out to meet the Redwyne fleet in “The Forsaken” I came to the realization that Euron was much more complex than my original conception of him — that Euron’s military strength may be metaphysical instead of conventional. While others have done excellent analysis of the Aeron’s dreams and the Lovecraftian themes that GRRM has tied to Euron; I believe that we can also look at the tactics Euron could use in his showdown with the Redwyne’s to anticipate that Euron is expecting more than a naval battle to occur on the Sunset Sea and that the rest of the Ironborn are in for a surprise.
Details of naval tactics in Planetos are scarce and if I had an opportunity to ask GRRM a question it would be “What are your sources and inspiration of naval warfare?” Naval tactics rely greatly on the ship (referred also as a platform) used and Planetos contains a variety of platforms that all must use specific tactics to guarantee victory. The dromonds of the Redwyne fleet and the longboats of the Iron Islands would use different tactics, and it’s my intent to discuss both the capabilities that these forces would bring to the battle and how the battle might play out.
The Great Dromonds
Both the Redwyne and Cersei’s Royal fleet contain “Great Dromonds” as described by GRRM in “So Spake Martin”
“For what it’s worth, however, [the Redwyne] ships would be larger and more formidable than the longships of the ironmen — cogs, carracks, and war galleys of various sides, up to the great dromonds with scorpions and catapults on deck.”
While the details are slim on these “Great Dromonds” I expect that GRRM is referring to the Byzantine dromons and medieval war galleys. These ships used a combination of sail and rowing for propulsion which gave them a sprint capability of 10 knots and normal operating speed of around seven knots. Galleys were about 32 meters long with an elevated fighting platform for artillery fire such as long bow, catapults, or scorpion. While galley battle tactics varied over time, a consistent theme was that dromons would envelop the enemy with their superior handling and speed. Once a positional advantage was gained, the galley would use the elevated platform to assault the enemy with fire and artillery until the opponent was weakened to the point that a boarding party would cross to the enemy ship and take it by force. It is important to note that these ships are much smaller than the “ships of the line” that we see in the Game of Thrones “Blackwater” and “Winds of Winter” episodes that appeared to be more similar to 19th century sail and cannon frigates used by the American and British Navy.
The Byzantine dromons that were used up until the 16th century could have a complement of 300 rowers and 100 marines with the marines being a mix of armored boarders and archers. As naval architecture advanced these manning numbers increased as the ships grew in size.
Longships were the traditional Norse naval platform and describe different ship types that varied in length, width, complement, and mission. They are similar to galleys and in fact had some level of success against coastal defenses during the collapse of the Carolingian Empire but in general are smaller than galleys.
The ships that I expect that Euron is commanding on the Shield Islands would be based of the Skeid version of longships which were the primary Norse warship and measured 30 to 40 meters long with drafts of around 1 to 2 meters that could reach speeds of up to 15 knots. Longship tactics took advantage of their combination of speed and shallow draft; these factors allowed the Norse to raid up rivers such as the Seine and Volga during the 9th century Viking expansion.
We can see the same Norse tactics in the Ironborn’s attacks on the Reach in A Feast for Crows, when the Ironborn begin to raid up the Mander. Longships were built to covertly operate in a littoral (less than 200 feet water depth) environment as a platform for amphibious assaults on poorly defended villages and while the Norse were excellent open ocean explorers they tended to avoid naval warfare due to the longship’s design. In fact, Victarion mentions the Ironborn tactic of staying within the littoral zone when recalling the attack upon the Shield Islands,
“The ironborn had come in on the evening tide, so the glare of the setting sun would kee them hidden from the greybeards in the watchtowers until it was too late. The wind was at their backs, as it had been all the way down from Old Wyk. It was whispered about the fleet that Euron’s wizards had much and more to do with that, that the Crow’s Eye appeased the Storm God with blood sacrifice. How else would he have dared sail so far to the west, instead of following the shoreline as was the custom?” (AFFC, The Reaver)
The danger of operating longships in the open ocean was also demonstrated during the Iron Fleet’s voyage to Essos where storms and conditions sunk Iron Fleet longships that galleys or the frigate-like Swan Ships could easily maneuver in.
When the Norse engaged in open ocean warfare the most common tactic used was to lash the boats together to form a platform for hand-to-hand combat. From the description of Victarion’s assault upon the Shield Islands it appears that the Iron Fleet’s freeboard is higher than a Norse longship allowing the Iron Victory the ability maneuver to ram the Serry ship and easily board it. The token force that remained at the Shield Islands after Euron sent 12 longships up the Mander that drew away the main Shield Island force would have made this tactic a successful one. Victarion does not consider lashing his longboats together and it appears from the Battle of Shield Isle that the Ironborn tactical philosophy is to ram and board their opponent’s ships.
The longship’s limitations in a naval engagement are also seen in during the Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion where the Greyjoys suffered a decisive loss at the Battle off Fair Isle. One can reasonably imagine that the victory was in part because of the tactical and technological advantage that the Royal Fleet had over the Iron Fleet. With a more stable platform to perform artillery attacks and a higher freeboard to deter boardings, the “Great Dromond” of the Royal Fleet would have a significant advantage over the raiding longboats of the Iron Fleet. The success of the Iron Fleet during the Battle of the Shield Islands was in part because of the element of surprise and the military deception caused by sending a vanguard up the Mander. The coastal defense forces in the Shield Islands also appeared to be small ships that could be outmaneuvered by the Ironborn’s longships..
Keys to the Game
For the Ironborn to have success against an opponent like the Redwyne fleet, the tactical advantages of longships must be successfully realized. This would involve:
- Maneuvering to the fore or aft of the galleys, minimizing the artillery that the galley can bring to bear
- Rapidly approaching, taking advantage of the longships’ speed advantage
- An efficient boarding which would involve scaling at least one meter of freeboard
In the meantime, the ideal oceanographic conditions for an Ironborn victory would be calm seas with no wind which would minimize the maneuverability of the Redwyne galleys and maximize the effect of the Ironborn’s speed advantage through rowing.
Conversely, the best tactics for the Redwynes to use would include:
- Maneuver to present the Ironborn to the beams to ensure maximum artillery to bear
- Maintain a standoff circle through maneuvering and artillery to avoid boarders
- Defeat Ironborn from a distance and board a longship only if its manning has been sufficiently depleted to ensure victory
The ideal oceanographic conditions for the Redwynes would be clear skies and choppy seas with steady wind that would not affect the stability of the top deck artillery while diminishing the Ironborn’s speed advantage.
Another tactic that could be used to attack the Redwyne fleet is referred to as a “swarm attack” in modern military tactics. This involves attacking a stronger target with a large amount of small platforms with the acceptance of high losses. This tactic could be successful with a large amount of fast maneuverable longships against less maneuverable dromond; as long as one or two longships are able to survive the combined artillery assault from the massed dromonds than the Ironborn could board and overcome the marines on board.
Swarm attacks are successful when one has a numerical advantage. Despite Margary’s report to the Small Council in A Feast for Crows that “a thousand ships” are sailing up the Mander, I do not believe that Euron has more than 50 longships. Aeron counts three dozen longships and there could be more that he does not see but not much more. Meanwhile, “Pacter Redwyne owned two hundred warships, and five times as many merchant carricks, wine cogs, trading galleys, and whalers.”
Force multipliers are defined in modern military doctrine as a factor that dramatically increases the effectiveness of a unit or weapon. In the modern sense, this could be high morale, training, or stealth. Another force multiplier exists in Planetos, magic.
I have no doubt that Euron has some magical resources to draw upon to defeat the Redwynes. The World of Ice and Fire describes the Rhoynish water wizards that could create “watery walls” and call “up the power of the river.” In A Game of Thrones stormsingers are mentioned,
“Magic had died in the west when the Doom fell on Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer, and neither spell-forged steel nor stormsingers nor dragons could hold it back, but Dany had always heard that the east was different.” (AGOT, Daenerys III)
With such magic, Euron could summon a magical wind, fog, or confusing sea to destabilize the dromons allowing the longships to approach and board them.
A Losing Proposition
The race to sea that is described in “The Forsaken” implies that the Ironborn intend to meet the Redwynes on the open ocean. Using historical tactics, the best chance of victory would be for the Greyjoys would be to encircle their enemy, lash their ships together, and use their longships as fighting platforms. Neither the World of Ice and Fire nor the ASOIAF series describes this as an Ironborn tactic and it may not be a successful one due to the numerical disadvantage that the Ironborn have.
As mentioned before, the modern en vogue “swarm” tactic could be used. The longship numbers support such a tactic to target one or two dromons which would then be used to assault the other Redwyne platforms. This kind of “island hop” variant could be successful but would result in high Ironborn casualties and could be stopped by the Redwynes immediately concentrating its fire upon any captured dromon.
Unless Euron calls upon a giant kraken to demolish the Redwyne fleet the odds of a Greyjoy victory are low. This assumes though that Euron’s goal is to win the battle in a military sense. Despite the tactics used 50 longships would fall quickly against 200 dromons which implies that the upcoming battle serves a different purpose.
How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Cthulhu
So we have a madman who has proven that he has a degree of military acumen preparing for a battle where he is outnumbered and fighting a foe with a technological and tactical advantage. To succeed, Euron could have a magical force multiplier which would diminish the Redwyne’s advantages but even then the Ironborn face a significant disadvantage. Again, others in the fandom have postulated on Euron’s intentions and I believe that the historical military record supports the case that Euron is preparing for a blood sacrifice or has a magical weapon to unleash upon the Redwynes.
There is another outcome though. We have seen Euron conduct one successful military operation and we know that he is a skilled speaker and politician but this does not mean that he is a military genius. Perhaps he has been drinking too much of his own dreamwine flavored Kool Aid and is boasting of abilities that he does not have. Could Euron be sailing the Ironborn into a sacrifice that becomes just a massacre without any blood magic?
Even without HBO’s help, some educated guesswork leads me to believe that The Winds of Winter has the following prospective plots in some fashion:
- The Battle of Ice and the resolution of Stannis’ bid for the Iron Throne
- Dany going to Vaes Dothrak, returning to Merreen and setting out for Westeros
- Jon’s resurrection and growth as a military leader
- Aegon’s conquest
- Whatever is happening in Kings Landing
- The impending army of the undead and the subsequent fall of the Wall
I recognize that we are talking about GRRM but that is a lot of plot for a single book!
What if Euron is a red herring? We could just get two chapters of the Ironborn in Westeros, “The Forsaken” at the beginning and a final Aeron chapter during the battle at the end of the book. I can see George tricking us into thinking Euron is this great threat with hints of the battle throughout TWOW, only to see a madman with a power he does not fully understand march his people into annihilation. Would not that be a very Martin lesson?
I walked out of that conference room in Baltimore thinking that only the Others were a greater threat to Westeros. I cannot get the growling voice George used when he read “The Forsaken” to us out of my head when I read an Aeron chapter. I also wonder if it is all a trick.
If GRRM follows historical examples of naval warfare, the Ironborn fleet should be destroyed by the Redwynes. That destruction could be avoided with the use of magic but would involve a scope of magic that GRRM has not used before. I am hesitant of Euron’s magical capabilities and wonder if GRRM’s insistence on performing a reading of “The Forsaken” was done to prepare the fandom for a flip where we expect a maniacal magical warlord performing a blood sacrifice to raise Cthulhu and instead we get an egomaniac that destroys his followers.