John Cleveley the Elder – Admiral Byng’s fleet getting underway from Spithead.
John Byng might have given chase to the French fleet at Minorca, instead he withdrew to Gibraltar and left the island to its fate.
On 7 April, Byng was at last able to weigh anchor. His captains were a capable but undistinguished lot though even the most junior had nine years’ seniority and the majority had previously been in the Mediterranean. He had served with only two of them before. There was no time or opportunity to work up the ships’ motley crews or to train the squadron together in any tactics. They would have to rely on the Articles of War and Fighting Instructions (a series of written tactical documents), send rowing boats over to the Admiral’s ship to receive orders and use a complicated system of flag signals. In a world where ‘being in the commander’s mind’ and initiative and intuition play such a great part, as became paramount in Nelson’s time, Byng’s little flotilla was hardly an inspiring one. But what had he actually been told to do? His orders dated 30 March 1756 were clear enough, quite properly leaving him enough flexibility, knowing he was fourteen days’ fast sailing away from his base at Portsmouth.
On arrival at Gibraltar, he was to ascertain whether the French had passed through the Strait of Gibraltar and, if so, with how many ships. If some of them were transports, then it was likely they were bound for North America. He was then to take soldiers from his own ships, put them under command of Rear Admiral West (his second in command) and dispatch him to meet up with, and place under his command, those ships already either at Halifax, Nova Scotia or on their way there, to make a force superior to the French squadron. West was then to cruise off the coast of Louisbourg and the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence to seize the French ships.
If the French had not passed through the Strait, he was to proceed to Minorca without delay. If he had to detach West, he was still to set out for Minorca with the ships he had remaining with him.
If he found the French had attacked Minorca, he was to ‘use all possible means in [his] power for its relief’. If the French had not attacked Minorca, he was to blockade Toulon to prevent them leaving the port. If any had managed to do so, he was to seize them in order to protect Minorca and Gibraltar. He was to protect British trade from Moroccan and Barbary raiders. He was to seize French privateers but take care not to extract them from Ottoman Empire ports in the Levant, nor to molest citizens of the Ottoman Empire. On arrival in the Mediterranean, he was to take under command the ships already there. Finally, if the French did evade his blockade of Toulon, and escape from the Mediterranean, he was to return to England and leave only enough ships behind to deal with the tasks he had been given.
This was fine as far as it went. Interestingly, Minorca did not appear to be the top priority; the escape of the French with reinforcements for North America appeared to be uppermost in the minds of the government. But surely the first thing on anyone’s mind would be the worst case: the French having invaded Minorca, overcoming the garrison with forces outstripping any that Byng had? What then? What actually was in their Lordships’ minds when he was ordered to use all powers to relieve Minorca? An amphibious assault against Fort St Philip? With the Fusiliers already on board and a single, scratch, battalion made up from the four in Gibraltar? However, there were other possibilities. A British force, although outnumbered by the French, could land unopposed in another part of the island and then, if well led, harass the French from the interior. Meanwhile, British ships could blockade and intercept any French resupply from Toulon, thus starving out the large land component, which could not rely on local provisioning. They would, of course, have to take on the French Navy.
Byng’s squadron had a rough passage to Gibraltar, only reaching it on 2 May 1756. Edgecumbe met him with the unwelcome news that the French had already landed in Minorca with between 13,000 and 15,000 men and thirteen men-of-war in support. However, Fort St Philip still held with a garrison of less than 2,500, bolstered by some of Edgecumbe’s men whom he had left behind. Lieutenant General Fowke, the governor of Gibraltar, one of the more unsavoury characters to come out of this story, called a council together with the clear intention of doing absolutely nothing to help and retaining his four battalions on the Rock. He manipulated and unbalanced the recommendations, which he then made to Byng, with dishonesty and subterfuge, showing that Fort St Philip could not be reinforced and that to try to do so would merely be a waste of manpower. However, in order to cover himself, he finished by saying to Byng that, if he insisted, he would make a detachment available if he thought it necessary. As a senior army officer, instead of helping Byng with various options of how to deal with the Minorca situation, he was obstructive, deceitful and pathetic. Sadly, Byng, who clearly was extremely worried by the situation, did not have the character to see through this useless soldier. Nor did his second in command, West, a good man, who should have had the moral courage to intervene. Exacerbating the situation, and maybe one of the reasons why Fowke was so self-serving, was that the dockyards in Gibraltar were a run-down disgrace; buildings were decaying and the right provisions and stores, and experts for repairing ships, were not at hand. On 4 May, Byng wrote a stinging report to the Admiralty, which was quickly followed by one from Fowke, implicating Byng in the decision not to reinforce Fort St Philip. Byng’s letter did not reach the Admiralty until 31 May. This not only was news those at home did not want to hear but it also gave everyone the uncomfortable feeling that the operation was doomed from the start.
On 8 May, without the reluctant Fowke’s detachment but with the rest of Edgecumbe’s ships under command, Byng set off with the whole of his squadron and, by 15 May, passed between Ibiza and Majorca, sailing south-east. Captain Hervey, a real hero and steadfastly loyal to Byng, was sent on ahead to deliver messages to General Blakeney at Fort St Philip if he could, and to carry out reconnaissance of the Minorcan coast and French shipping. All very sound, but Byng’s letter to Blakeney was hardly encouraging. He told Blakeney that he had the Fusiliers on board whom he could land, subject to the General’s advice, to defend Minorca. However, he warned that if he did so, because they had replaced the Marines, his squadron would then be ineffective.
Hervey managed to get close enough to Fort St Philip to see the English flag still flying and made his own signal to the fort. Byng was then becalmed some 3 miles from the fort but could hear the exchange of fire between the French and British. Infuriatingly, they had no wind to push them into the harbour from which they could take on the French land forces. At that moment the French fleet was seen to the south-east, making slow progress with the little wind that was unavailable to Byng, in the lee of land. Without hesitation, Byng signalled his squadron to give chase, and by seven o’clock in the evening the two sides were closing; however, neither wanted a night action, so Byng hove to near land in order to take advantage of the offshore breeze that would blow in the morning.
Back in the fort, apathy and indecision ruled. Hervey’s ship was not seen until ten o’clock in the morning and by the time it had been decided what message should be sent to Byng, his ships were too far away for the rowing boat, with an officer to give a verbal report, to be able to reach him. The option, therefore, of taking advice from the besieged Blakeney, and landing a force to beat off the French, was lost forever.
As dawn rose on 20 May, the French were seen some 12 miles away to the south-east. Since Byng was between them and Fort St Philip, there was still an opportunity to liaise with the fort but he was loath to detach any ship from his force with battle looming. There now followed a duel of sailing expertise, each commander manoeuvring for position and the best possible wind advantage. The crews prepared for battle and the Fusiliers took up sniping positions. Soon after midday, the two fleets were abreast of each other, and with a check on his Fighting Instructions, Byng could be ready to attack. However, mindful of his 600-mile journey back to Gibraltar for any repairs needed, Byng was anxious to keep damage to the minimum. Battle was then joined with all the muddle and confusion brought about by lack of training, indifferent signalling methods and ships’ captains not knowing exactly what they had to do. Movement by intuition and imagination was hampered by a slavish regard for conventional written instructions. Ships variously engaged each other at a range of 300 yards with cannon and small arms fire.
As in most battles, by land or sea, the fog of war descended. Smoke hung over the whole area and instant recognition of friend and foe became difficult, with ships advancing and withdrawing with the wind and what was left of their damaged sails and rigging. By five o’clock firing effectively ceased, and the French were seen moving away to the north-west, about 2 miles distant. Byng’s force redeployed in case of French counter-attack but the enemy soon disappeared into the night and Byng hove to. Pursuit of the French was not an option, given the damage to Byng’s ships. For Galissonnière, attacking the British again was unnecessary; he had achieved his objective, which was to inflict so much damage on his opponents that they would be unable to relieve Minorca or blockade Toulon. So ended the Battle of Minorca, without a clear win for either side but a medium-term advantage to the French.
The following day, crews counted the cost. Two ships had got lost, but were later recovered, four were unfit for action and numerous repairs were required to most of the others. Had Galissonnière attacked then, he would have undoubtedly defeated the British. Additionally, Byng was worried about the quality of some of his captains who had not performed at all well in the battle. Byng then called for a council of war. Nowadays, this would be the time for a commander to give his views, listen to his subordinates and staff, and give out his orders. Sadly, this is not the way it happened then. The council was invited to suggest how their commander might carry out his instructions. However, it degenerated into a wide-ranging discussion, with everyone giving their views, portraying their own efforts in as good a light as possible, avoiding any blame for past inadequacies and seeking to do as little as possible in the next phase. Byng’s council included the senior army officers. There were still a number of sensible and attainable options for the combined land and sea force to deal with the Minorca situation. Although the squadron was significantly depleted, it remained a worrying threat to the French resupply system for their forces in Minorca. The army officers should have been in a position to advise Byng how a land operation could be successfully conducted but they, weakly, went for the soft option and kept quiet. It seemed they had given up before they even started. It then became a self-serving discussion purely to justify the withdrawal to Gibraltar and leave Blakeney and his garrison to their fate. It was no good, however, Byng suggesting that it was a ‘council’ decision; it was his, as the senior commander, and he had to bear full responsibility for it. While it can hardly be construed as cowardice, it was, by any standards, a severe lack of judgement.
On 2 June, the bombshell exploded. A copy of Galissonnière’s dispatch was obtained through allied informants, clearly revealing a French victory. This was enough to panic the government and, without waiting to hear from Byng, Admiral Hawke was dispatched to take command of the Mediterranean fleet and send Byng home. Byng’s letters arrived on 23 June, covering his side of the affair. Politicians started to squirm with anxiety and self-protection. Byng’s dispatch was edited, amended and suppressed to show everyone in a good light except him. On 27 June, Fort St Philip fell. The mob attacked Wrotham Park, Byng was burnt in effigy and the pamphleteers had a field day. On 26 July, Byng arrived at Spithead and was placed under arrest, disgracefully, by his brother-in-law Vice Admiral Henry Osborne. He was appallingly treated, being moved from pillar to post and effectively unable to organise his affairs, let alone a defence to what was clearly to be a court martial.