HMS Royal George, right, shown fictitiously at the launch of HMS Cambridge in 1755 by John Cleveley the Elder (1757)
Admiral Sir Edward Hawke defeating Admiral de Conflans in the Bay of Biscay
Artist: Thomas Luny
In 1758 and 1759 British fortunes had sharply improved in most parts of the world except in home waters. The Western Squadron spent much of 1758 under Anson’s command once more, but scurvy and victualling problems limited him to six weeks at sea, though he once victualled at sea from transports on the coast of Brittany. In October 1758, now under Saunders, the squadron again failed to intercept French ships entering and leaving Brest. It was clear to British ministers that the Western Squadron had to do better. It was all the more clear as it became evident that the French government, with its naval strength and colonial position weakening fast, had decided to solve its troubles at a stroke by invading Britain. Once again the English Jacobites were to play their part, and again there were unrealistic hopes of Spanish, Swedish and even Russian participation. By unorthodox financial manoeuvres enough money was borrowed to keep the French navy at sea for another summer. The plan was for the invasion force to sail with the main fleet, which had to come from Brest and Rochefort. It was, however, impossible to assemble the army at Brest, which always depended on food and raw materials imported by coastal shipping from the rest of France, and which by the spring of 1759 was already severely short of timber and unable to feed extra mouths. It was therefore decided to assemble the army around Vannes, in southern Brittany, where it could be fed, and where the inland sea of the Morbihan provided anchorage for transports. It followed that the Brest fleet had to sail down to collect the transports before returning to the English Channel.
It followed for the British that Brest was now the key point. Intermittent cruises in the Western Approaches would not suffice; it was necessary for the Western Squadron to be continually off Brest or very near it. Never before had the Royal Navy faced the dangers of a close blockade of Brest, and the geographical situation needs to be explained, for wind, tide and navigation were as always the limiting factors in naval operations. Brest dockyard lies on a narrow river, the Penfeld, issuing on to a huge enclosed roadstead, which itself communicates with the sea by a narrow channel, the Goulet, lying almost east and west with high ground on both sides. Outside the Goulet are two anchorages, Berthaume Bay on the north and Camaret Bay on the south side, themselves screened from the open Atlantic by extensive reefs and islands through which there are three passages. To the westward the Iroise is open but scattered with dangerous pinnacle rocks. To the northward the narrow and rock-strewn Four with its formidable tide-race leads into the English Channel. To the south the Chaussée de Sein, a long chain of reefs and islands (known to the English as the ‘Saints’ or ‘Seams’), stretches westwards into the Atlantic. Through it there is one deep but very narrow channel, the Raz de Sein, with the Tevennec rock in the middle of the channel at its northern end. The tide runs through the Goulet at three knots, the Four at four and a half knots and the Raz at seven knots. None of them could be passed except with the tide, and as it is twenty-five miles from the Goulet to the Raz it required exact timing to pass both on the same ebb (or, inward-bound, on the same flood), so that squadrons often had to anchor at least one tide in Berthaume or Camaret Bay. The distances are such that there is no one position from which a fleet could watch all three channels out of Brest except close in with the Goulet where they meet, but neither is there any ground high enough for watchers on the mainland of Brittany to see far enough out to sea to locate a blockading squadron in the offing.
In the prevailing south-westerlies it was easy for French ships to enter the Goulet, but to leave required an easterly or northerly wind; commonest in the late winter and spring, between January and May. At other times of the year the chance to sail from Brest usually came when one of the regular depressions blew in from the Atlantic over the British Isles, causing the wind in the Channel to veer northerly and easterly. Overall it is possible to sail from Brest on about 40 per cent of the days in the year. Because they were often sailing in northerly winds, and because they often wished to avoid the British, the French tended to use the Raz de Sein more often than the other channels.
For a different reason inward-bound squadrons often came the same way. It has been explained why Ushant was a dangerous landfall. No sane navigator, unsure of his position after weeks at sea, would head straight for Brest – least of all a navigator plotting on the Neptune François, the official French chart atlas from 1693 until 1822, which lays down the port thirty-five miles out of position. Instead French ships usually came in from the Atlantic on the parallel of Belle Isle, an excellent bold landfall, from which a south-westerly wind would carry a ship on the port tack to Lorient and Brest, or on the starboard to Nantes, Rochefort and Bordeaux. Alternatively they might first make Cape Finisterre or Cape Ortegal to fix their position and then strike north-eastward across the Bay to Belle Isle. From Belle Isle ships approached Brest from the south-east, past the headland of Penmarc’h and through the Raz de Sein. For the British this meant that any close watch on Brest required a squadron between the Seams and the Penmarks (to use English names), in which position the Breton coast is a deadly lee shore and the only possible escape in a westerly gale would be down into the Bay of Biscay, away from home. The only reasonably safe position for a British squadron watching Brest is west or north-west of Ushant, with the Channel open to leeward, but from here it is impossible to see the Raz de Sein.
These were some of the difficulties Sir Edward Hawke faced when he sailed with the Western Squadron in May 1759 under orders to keep as close to Brest as possible. There he developed a system by which the main squadron was kept in relative safety to seaward of Ushant, but in constant touch with an inshore squadron of two small ships of the line under a bold and skilful captain (Augustus Hervey) lying off the Black Rocks at the inner end of the Iroise, near enough to the Goulet to see anything coming in or out of Brest. Another small squadron was detached into the Bay to watch Rochefort and the French transports in the Morbihan. Initially Hawke was to return at intervals to Torbay for victuals and water, but by August he had thirty-two sail of the line, enough to take turns to visit port and still keep twenty or so on station permanently. At the same time a regular system of replenishment with fresh provisions at sea was developed, with transports carrying live cattle, vegetables and beer. This presented many practical difficulties, with deep-laden merchantmen beating up from Plymouth to the blockading station dead to windward, and coming alongside to trans-ship their cargoes in exposed anchorages or even the open sea. Great determination and expense were necessary, but as a result Hawke was able to keep his ships continually healthy and on station throughout the summer and autumn. The naval physician James Lind, like all professional observers, was astonished at what was now possible.
It is an observation, I think, worthy of record – that fourteen thousand persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of health upon the watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.
It had never been possible for a fleet at sea to remain healthy for so long.
With the French fleet commanded by the comte de Conflans believed to be ready to sail, Hawke remained at sea throughout the autumn, but was repeatedly blown off station by gales, to the alarm of the government – but not of Hawke. ‘Their Lordships may depend upon there being little foundation for the present alarms,’ he wrote from Plymouth Sound on 14 October. ‘While the wind is fair for the enemy’s coming out, it is also favourable for our keeping in; and while we are obliged to keep off, they cannot stir.’ A month later he was blown into Torbay by another gale, and on the same day he sailed, so did Conflans from Brest, 200 miles away. On 16 November, approaching Ushant, Hawke met the victualler Love & Unity who told him that the French were at sea. They were unlucky with the wind, which blew them not only out of Brest but far to the westward before they could shape a course for the Morbihan. On their own account, they were also suffering cruelly from a shortage of seamen, with only 70–80 per cent of their established number of able seamen, and a third of those mere novices, equivalent to British ‘ordinary seamen’. In fact most of Hawke’s captains would have thought themselves very well off with that manning: the real difference was between ships which had been continuously at sea for many months during which they had worked up their crews to a high state of efficiency, and those which had not left port.
The Morbihan, where the French transports lay, is itself within the great bay of Quiberon, which is screened from the open Atlantic by the Quiberon Peninsula, prolonged by a chain of islands ending at the southern end in the rocks called the Cardinals (les Cardinaux), with the bulk of Belle Isle further to seaward providing more shelter. On the 20th Conflans’ twenty-one ships of the line were approaching Belle Isle when their lookouts sighted Hawke’s twenty-three ships astern. The scene was dramatic. Both fleets were driving eastwards before a rising gale, the French shortening sail, Hawke’s ships shaking the reefs out of their topsails. Before them in the fading light of a winter’s afternoon lay a dangerous coast of which they had no reliable charts. Conflans was confident that the British would not dare to follow him into Quiberon Bay, underestimated the rate at which Hawke’s ships were closing, and chose to lead a headlong escape rather than form a line of battle. By mid-afternoon the leading British ships were already in action against the French rear as Conflans rounded the Cardinals to lead into the bay, when the wind suddenly veered two points, heading the French and throwing them into confusion. As the night came on, a fierce battle was fought in heavy seas. Trying to open her lower-deck gunports, the Thésée flooded and went down. The Superbe was sunk by two broadsides from Hawke’s flagship the Royal George. The final reckoning the following morning was one French ship taken and six (including Conflans’ flagship the Soleil Royal) wrecked or sunk, with the survivors scattered up and down the coast and six trapped in the Vilaine river with their guns thrown overboard. Two British ships were wrecked, but their crews were rescued. ‘When I consider the season of the year,’ Hawke reported,
the hard gales on the day of action, a flying enemy, the shortness of the day, and the coast we are on, I can boldly affirm that all that could possibly be done has been done. As to the loss we have sustained, let it be placed to the account of the necessity I was under of running all risks to break this strong force of the enemy.
No British admiral ever ran such navigational risks or gained so dramatic a victory. The threat of invasion vanished, and French sea officers fell into rage and despair. ‘I do not know everything about it,’ Captain S. F. Bigot de Morogues of the Magnifique wrote, ‘but I know too much. The battle of the 20th has annihilated the navy and finished its plans.’ ‘This is a consequence of what we have seen for a long time,’ another survivor wrote, ‘blunders, proofs of ignorance and then folly, plenty of zeal but no ability, plenty of gallantry but no sense, arrogance without prudence. That sums up what has just happened.