The Battle of Quiberon Bay, Nicholas Pocock, 1812. National Maritime Museum.
In the naval sphere in 1759, Pitt’s control of British strategy and the military appointments on which it depended was positioning Great Britain to overthrow the French Empire and its naval power lock, stock, and barrel. Not surprisingly, given the British tradition of muddling through in times of peace, under Newcastle the war at sea in 1756 had started off almost as badly as had the war on land in North America. The Royal Navy had not been ready for war; its funding had been set at too low a level over the previous decade of peace. In the Mediterranean, Britain’s position on the strategically important island of Minorca had almost immediately come under attack by a French fleet. The defending fleet under Admiral Sir John Byng was both outnumbered and in considerably worse shape than that of the French. Nevertheless, the fleet action was indecisive. Byng, however, decided to return to Gibraltar to refit, and the British lost Minorca.
A furious British public demanded its pound of flesh for the defeat, and the ministry ordered that Byng be tried for cowardice. A court-martial found him guilty and sentenced him to death. However, its members undoubtedly believed George II would pardon the admiral. The king did not, and Byng went to his death—a death that Voltaire characterized as one motivated “pour encourager les autres” (“for the encouragement of the others [admirals]”). In fact, Voltaire’s quip masked the reality that Great Britain expected little from its generals but a great deal from its admirals. Byng had failed to measure up to those standards.
Confronted by the naval difficulties at sea, and to cement his political ties to his predecessor and hold his new ministry together, Pitt relied heavily on Lord Anson, whom he had recalled to duty as first lord of the Admiralty in late 1757 and granted authorization to fix the problems. Among his many acts, Anson ensured that the commander of the Western Squadron (renamed the Channel Fleet)—the command that he had led to victory at what later came to be called the First Battle of Cape Finisterre—would remain Sir Edward Hawke, who matched Anson’s record as a fighter. In 1746, Hawke had caught a French attempt to fight their merchant ships out of the blockade the British were maintaining off Brest. In the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre, only two out of eight French ships of the line guarding the convoy escaped. The British captured the rest, with three falling into the hands of Hawke. The British lost some 170 killed; the French, 4,000—which suggests how thoroughly Hawke had trained the gun crews of the ships under his command. Hawke was undoubtedly the greatest tactician and battle leader the Royal Navy would possess until Horatio Nelson. In fact, one might as much speak of “the Hawke touch” as of “the Nelson touch.”
In 1756, Hawke still commanded the Channel Fleet, again carrying out a distant blockade of Brest. One of the major risks of Pitt’s strategy was that it denuded the British Isles of troops in order to support the expeditions to destroy French power in Canada, the West Indies, Africa, and India. Thus, the one hope the French had to redress the looming disasters was to launch an invasion of the British Isles to destroy Britain’s pretensions of being a great power. To that end, the French had gathered an invasion force at Quiberon Bay, which needed the cover of the Brest fleet to have any chance of reaching Great Britain. Therein lay the rub, because throughout the summer and into the fall, there patrolled, in the words of the great naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, “those far distant, storm-beaten ships” of the Channel Fleet. Mahan was, of course, speaking of the role of the Channel Fleet in guarding the British Isles during the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Thus, between the French and world dominion lay the Channel Fleet guarding the British Isles.
Hawke maintained the blockade of Brest only by means of an innovative and difficult system of victualing his ships at sea via supply ships sent out from Great Britain. The medical profession of the time had yet to discover the causes of scurvy, but by shipping out fresh food, Hawke achieved the extraordinary record of having only twenty sailors out of fourteen thousand become ill over the six months his ships maintained their position off Brest. Moreover, the unbroken blockade of Brest had hardened the tough sailors of the British ships to handle the worst weather, while the gun crews’ constant practice had turned the fleet into a murderous weapon of war.
By fall 1759, the blockade and their defeats had made the French desperate. Then, in mid-November, the waves and winds of a ferocious fall storm blew Hawke’s ships all the way back to Torbay on the southwest coast of England. The French admiral, the Count de Conflans-Brienne, under pressure from his government, took advantage of the gale and sortied from Brest to sail south to Quiberon Bay to rendezvous with the invasion fleet. British frigates lying outside Brest immediately sailed up the English Channel to inform Hawke that the French were out, and of course the admiral knew where Conflans was headed. The weather mitigated, at least for a short time, and the British put to sea to beat down the Channel and then around Brittany with the same objective Conflans had in mind: Quiberon Bay. It was a race the British had spent the past six months preparing to make. The French, however, had spent the past six months in harbor in Brest and were hardly ready to face the Atlantic gales of November.
In the early morning hours of November 20, as the French were approaching Quiberon Bay, the weather again worsened. That alone would have presented Conflans with the challenge of shepherding his inexperienced fleet through the narrow channels that led through the reef-and-island-studded entrance into the bay itself. The first thing the French spied was a group of British frigates in front of the bay on watch for any movement by French ships to break out. Conflans initially moved to trap them, but suddenly a lookout cried out his sighting of a line of sails astern making straight for the French fleet. It was Hawke. As the British admiral later recalled, “At about half past eight on the morning of the 20th … the Maidstone made the signal for seeing the [enemy] fleet. I immediately spread about the signal for the line abreast, in order to draw all the ships of the squadron up with me.”
In fact, while covering a greater distance, Hawke had arrived at Brest only a few hours after Conflans. Sailing with inexperienced crews unprepared to handle the roiling seas of fall in the Atlantic, the French were in a dire position. As in all wars, experience and discipline told. In the case of one French ship, the Thésée, the crew consisted almost entirely of peasants conscripted from their fields a few months earlier. The crews of the other French ships were not much better—and not just the sailors, but the gun crews too were distinctly inferior to those on Hawke’s grim ships. Throughout the eighteenth century, the French never managed to bring the gun crews on their ships up to the standards of the Royal Navy. For every shot a French gun crew could get off, a British gun crew could fire two and sometimes three shots. Moreover, the British fired directly into an enemy’s ship with the aim to destroy it; the French tended to fire into an enemy’s rigging, the better to get away.
Conflans confronted the dilemma of whether to turn and fight in the midst of an Atlantic gale or to try to get his ships into Quiberon Bay, where, given the dangerous shoals and reefs, even the British would not dare to follow. He chose the latter course, but in the face of the howling winds, with his inexperienced crews, he dared not have his ships carry their full set of sails. Hawke, on the other hand, had his crews deploy every sail the masts of his ships could bear. Consequently, the British gained steadily on the fleeing French.
By two thirty, the van and the center of the French fleet were rounding Les Cardinaux, the rocky shoals that marked the end of the Quiberon peninsula and what Conflans believed to be safety. But Hawke’s leading vessels had already caught up with the rear section of the French fleet and began ripping them apart with devastating broadsides. “Black Dick” Howe, captain of the Magnanime, later to command the British fleet off the American coast early in the revolution and then the Channel Fleet during the French Revolutionary Wars, laid his ship up close to the Formidable and had his gun crews blast the Frenchman’s hull, “pierc[ing it] like a cullender.”
Almost immediately, it was clear there was great danger in opening the lower gun ports, because the turbulent seas might flood a vessel and send it to its death. That was precisely what happened when the British warship Torbay engaged the Thésée. As the waves threatened to swamp both vessels, Augustus Keppel, captain of the Torbay, turned his ship into the wind, but the French crew of peasants failed to act as quickly. As had occurred with Henry VIII’s Mary Rose two hundred years earlier, water flooded in through the lower gun ports, and the Thésée turned turtle and went straight to the bottom. The peasant crew, having undoubtedly already suffered enormously during their first experience at sea, now faced a few last moments of agonizing horror as their ship slipped beneath the raging Atlantic and its dark waters drowned their cries and their lives. Only nine sailors from the Thésée managed to swim ashore.
With the storm reaching its height, gigantic waves and ferocious winds made any kind of controlled course almost impossible, but British seamanship proved sterling. Hawke made the extraordinary decision to continue the pursuit over the unchartered reefs and shoals into Quiberon Bay. Leading the pack, the British admiral and his ship of the line went after Conflans’s flagship. He ordered the ship’s captain to lay the Royal George beside the Soleil Royal, and when the captain raised the possibility that they might smash into the rocks, Hawke shouted back: “You have now done your duty in apprising me of the dangers, let us now see how well you can comply with my orders.”
As it became suddenly clear the British were following them into Quiberon Bay with murderous intent, the French gave way to wholesale panic. Like a flock of sheep fleeing a pack of wolves, they now thought only of escape. With the enemy having clearly abandoned any inclination to fight, Hawke’s captains smelled blood and pounced. By the end of the afternoon as darkness settled, besides the Thésée, the French had lost the Superbe, with the Formidable and the Héros taken as prizes, the latter lost later when she ran aground. The British did lose two ships but saved most of the crews.
Only the early autumn night saved the French from losing their entire fleet. With the storm still raging and darkness rising, fighting halted as the ships of both fleets anchored. The next day, to avert its capture by the British, Conflans ordered his flagship burned. Eight French ships of the line had slipped out during the night, while seven escaped in the early morning hours by dumping their guns and everything not nailed down into the bay and then crossing the bar into the Vilaine River. There they remained, moldering and rotting, unable to get back out. Hawke had tried to catch them before they crossed the bar, but a fierce wind out of the northwest held his ships back. The French lost one other ship of the line when the Juste was wrecked in the Loire. All in all, Hawke had taken enormous risks in his remorseless pursuit of the French into Quiberon Bay in the midst of a ferocious gale, straight into a harbor for which the British had neither pilots nor charts. But he relied on the skill of his captains and his sailors, and they returned that trust fully in their performance. The Battle of Quiberon Bay was as complete a victory as any naval commander has ever won, and it destroyed French naval power for the remainder of the war. There would be no substantial reinforcements to support the French forces isolated in New France, the West Indies, or India.