Battle of Cape Ortegal

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Bringing Home the Prizes – aftermath of the battle by Francis Sartorius

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Although the storm that followed the battle of Trafalgar, coupled with Collingwood’s aversion to anchoring on the evening of 21 October, left his ships with only four prizes to be escorted to Gibraltar, it was not long before another British force doubled this number of gains by the Royal Navy. Rear-Admiral Dumanoir le Pelley had headed his four sail-of-the-line, the Formidable (80), Duguay Trouin (74), Mont Blanc (74) and Scipion(74) away to the south, instead of returning to Cadiz, with the intention of complying with Villeneuve’s original plans for the Combined Fleets: he hoped to work round the British fleet and pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, then steer for Toulon. However, on the morning of 22 October, when he was satisfied that he had eluded pursuit by Collingwood’s ships, Dumanoir had second thoughts. The wind was against him; and any attempt to pass Gibraltar would risk an engagement with Rear-Admiral Louis’s stronger force of six ships-of-the-line which he knew to be in or near the Rock. He altered course to the west, to round Cape St. Vincent and steer north for Rochefort.

All went well until soon after Dumanoir’s four ships entered the Bay of Biscay, when they were some 40 miles to the north-west of Spain’s Cape Ortegal. There, on 2 November, they were sighted by the frigatePhoenix, one of many British vessels searching for Rear-Admiral Allemand’s squadron which was still at large after leaving Rochefort in July. Dumanoir gave chase: Captain Thomas Baker ran south, leading the enemy towards a British squadron of five ships-of-the-line which was cruising off Ferrol, under Captain Sir Richard Strachan in the 80-gun Caesar. Helped by the frigates Boadicea and Dryad, Baker managed to contact the Caesar at 11 pm and warn Strachan of his pursuers. Although he could not count on any immediate support, because the other four British vessels were somewhat scattered, Strachan headed his ship for the enemy. But as soon as Dumanoir saw the approaching Caesar, he ordered his force to bear away, so that when the moon set around 1.30 am, and the weather thickened, Strachan lost sight of his adversaries.

He seized this opportunity to shorten sail and allow the Bellona (74), Courageux (74), Hero (74) and Namur (74) to come up with him. And by 9.00 in the morning he again had the French ships in sight to the north-north-west. Ordering his squadron to set all possible sail, Strachan gave chase, but by noon his ships were still as much as 14 miles from their quarry. Realizing the extent to which they were handicapped by the slow sailing Bellona, he decided to press on without her — four ships against four. He was nonetheless unable to come up with Dumanoir’s force before darkness again fell. Fortunately, Strachan had the benefit of four frigates; these fast sailers were able to keep in touch with the enemy throughout the night.

Dawn next day, 4 November, revealed the rearmost French ship, the Scipion, only six miles ahead of the Caesar. It also disclosed that Captain L. W. Halstead’s Namur had been unable to keep up and was now well astern of her consorts. This was Dumanoir’s opportunity: with a fair wind from the south-east he could have tacked his four ships-of-the-line and fallen upon only three opponents. But, in the light of his pusillanimous conduct during the battle of Trafalgar, it is scarcely necessary to say that he did not do so. He held his course until, helped by the wind backing to SSE, Strachan in the Caesar, followed by Captain the Hon. A. H. Gardner’s Hero and Captain R. Lee’s Courageux, were seen to be approaching so rapidly that a fight was inevitable.

At 11.45 Dumanoir ordered his ships to form line ahead on the starboard tack in the order Duguay Trouin, Captain Touffet, Formidable, Captain Letellier (flag), Mont Blanc, Captain Villegris, and Scipion, Captain Bellanger, on a course NE by E to meet a British attack. At noon Strachan ordered the Caesar to head for the Formidable, the Hero for the Mont Blanc and the Courageux for the Scipion. And at 12.15 the action between these six ships began.

Just before 1.00 pm Captain Touffet, leading the French line in the Duguay Trouin, determined to support the Formidable by swinging round to starboard across the Caesar’s bows, to rake her from ahead. By luffing up, Strachan avoided this danger. The other three French ships then followed the Duguay Trouin round in succession on to the port tack, and at 1.20 the British ships tacked in pursuit.

Both sides were now heading for the Namur which was in action with the Formidable by 2.45. And she proved too much for Dumanoir’s already damaged flagship; at 3.50 Captain Letellier struck his colours. Five minutes later the likewise damaged Scipion also struck, Captain Bellanger’s ship being taken in prize by Strachan’s frigates. The Duguay Trouin and Mont Blanc then tried to escape, but were soon overhauled by the Caesar and Hero and, after a further 20 minutes destructive cannonade, were compelled to surrender.

In this action, much of it fought by three British ships-of-the-line against four French, the former’s casualties numbered only 24 killed and 111 wounded, the latter’s all of 750 killed, including Captain Touffet of the Duguay Trouin, and wounded, including Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, and Captain Bellanger of the Scipion.

And while the British ships suffered relatively little damage, all four French vessels had been severely mauled. Nonetheless Strachan was able to escort his opponents in prize to Plymouth where, after being refitted, they were added to the strength of the Royal Navy. The total number of vessels finally lost by the Combined Fleets at and shortly after the battle of Trafalgar was thus brought up to 19 ships-of-the-line (of which theDuguay Trouin, renamed Implacable, continued to fly the White Ensign until after the First World War, serving during her later years as a boys’ harbour training ship at Plymouth).

Strachan’s bold and effective handling of his squadron contrasts sharply with Calder’s conduct when he encountered Villeneuve in the same area in July. To him goes the credit for providing a most effective coda to Nelson’s greatest triumph, one which brought down the last curtain on a drama for which all the north Atlantic and the western Mediterranean had been the stage for seven long months. Begun when Villeneuve slipped out of Toulon on 30 March, the Trafalgar Campaign was finally ended when Dumanoir’s ships surrendered off Cape Ortegal on 4 November. For this success Strachan was rewarded with a Knighthood of the Bath, to add to his inherited baronetcy.

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