Certainly it was against all the canons of naval warfare to fight a battle in such weather. Under a thunderous cobalt-grey sky the Royal George crowded on sail in pursuit of the French, spray scudding from her bows as she drove before the wind. Hawke was pushing as hard as he dared, and his officers anxiously scanned the cracking and heaving canvas above them. All hands stood ready at sheets and braces, and the decks were cleared for action. At about 10 a.m. the Royal George shook out the second reef in her topsails and set studding sails. Seeing land ahead – which he took to be Belle-Île – Hawke hoist his colours and ordered the topgallant sails set, a very risky manoeuvre in such high seas. Hawke’s other ships did not find his hard driving easy to accommodate: the Magnanime sustained damage in the topgallants and had to slow for repairs. The atmosphere in the other vessels is best described as controlled panic. Several ships stove in their launches and longboats and jettisoned them, while the Burford threw its livestock overboard. At noon the wind was blowing so hard that the Royal George was forced to take in two reefs in her foresails. As Hawke explained conditions to the Admiralty: ‘All day we had very fresh gales at north-west and W.N.W. with heavy squalls. M. Conflans kept going off under such sail as all his squadron could carry and at the same time keep together; while we crowded after him with every sail our ships could carry.’
Conflans might have been justified in thinking that the enemy would not attempt to follow him into Quiberon Bay – even if high seas were not running, there were simply too many Royal Navy ships. And there were other rational grounds for his action. All he had to do was wait until the next westerly gale blew Hawke off station, which would enable the invasion flotilla to come out. French critics always think Conflans should have fought and risked his fleet to put Hawke out of action. Against this was the consideration that, even if the two fleets knocked each other out, there were still dozens of Royal Navy frigates left to destroy d’Aiguillon’s transports. The fallacy in Conflans’s thinking was, however, twofold. For even if he was not being pursued by his most deadly foe, how did he hope to get all his ships through the narrow harbour entrance while such a ferocious storm was blowing? And, however strategically sound Conflans’s ideas, in war so much depends on the unexpected. Doubtless nobody could have foreseen that Hawke would hurl himself onto a lee shore with a press of sail, when the shoreline was known to be studded with reefs and shoals. But a commander must always try to read his opponent and gauge his desperation. Here was Hawke, who had been itching to finish off the enemy since the beginning of the year, and obsessed with the notion that he was plagued by supernatural ill luck.
Conflans should have known Hawke was desperate, and a desperate man, like a gambler, will risk the entire pot on a single throw.
If courage is the art of taking minutely calculated risks, Hawke was a great practitioner of the art. Ever since Finisterre in 1747 he had been working on a range of battle orders that would cover every contingency. Part of the fleet drill was that in a general chase the warships nearest the enemy should form line of battle and engage without regard to their position in the overall battle line; as new ships came up, they would also engage without worrying about their regular stations. Since Howe was now in the van with seven men-o war, these conditions were fulfilled. Undeterred by the weather, Hawke hoist his flags and set topgallant sails, despite the rising sea, and the other ships were compelled to follow his example. This was an extremely dangerous manoeuvre and, like everything Hawke did that day, strictly against the book. There was nearly an early disaster, for Keppel carried so much sail that water poured into his lee ports and he had to come up into the wind very quickly to avoid capsizing. All this time the wind speed was increasing from the west-north-west, with heavy gusts, driving rain and sudden squalls. Not even Hawke dared to flout the odds in such conditions, so he very soon took in his topgallant sails, while ordering them reset the moment the wind abated.
The result of Hawke’s headstrong, risky pursuit was to wreck Conflans’s plan for getting all his ships to safety before the British could engage. Making way with perilous rapidity on a rising sea, Howe in the Magnanime began to gain on the enemy. Conflans realised he might not have time to get all his ships inside the bay and then form line under the shelter of the western shore. Now it looked as though the French would not have time to haul to the wind and come about. To his incredulity, the rising gale, high seas and dangerous lee shore coruscating with rocks and shoals did nothing to make the British slacken their speed, and the Magnanime and Royal George were even prepared to set their topgallants. The Bay of Biscay was in full ferocity, with pyramidal waves, a heavy swell and foam-flecked confused seas, where the dark green of the ocean, the grey of the ‘white caps’ and the lowering black clouds on the horizon produced an atmosphere of Stygian gloom even at midday. The menacing seas found their complement in the rocky shore – one of the most dangerous of all Atlantic coastlines. The French were making for the entrance to the bay between Dumet Island and the Cardinal rocks to port – the last of the long range of rocks and islets that continue the Quiberon peninsula; beyond that was a lee shore sticklebacked with reefs. By noon Hawke was off the south coast of Belle-Île and could see huge breakers smashing against the cliffs. In the distance he could make out the foam-drenched Hoedik rocks and the surf-beaten Cardinals. A heavy breaking sea was crashing over the Guérin and other rocky banks flanking the approach to the southern entrance to Quiberon Bay, which lay between the Cardinals and the Four shoal to starboard, a perilous rocky bank about seven miles east-south-east.
For two hours the Royal Navy steadily closed the gap between their vanguard and the four ships in the French rear – Formidable, Thésée, Héros and Superbe. At around 2 p.m. the leading vessel in the British van, the Coventry, came under fire from the French. But as the French stood in for land, Howe, commanding the British van, signalled to his crews to keep their nerve and refrain from firing back until they were close enough to touch the muzzles of the enemy guns. But the gunners on HMS Warspite disregarded the orders and, without any word of command from their captain (Sir John Bentley), opened up on the hindmost enemy ship, which was out of range. It was about 2.30 p.m. when Conflans in his flagship the Soleil Royal reached the Cardinal rocks. As he entered and hauled round them, Conflans heard the sound of gunfire and realised that his slow rear had been caught. The four French ships toiling along eight to ten miles behind their Admiral were now being attacked by nine Royal Navy warships. Conflans, who had already committed the grave error of not using his flagship as a focus around which his other vessels could cluster, now committed another by not turning round and going to their rescue; there was still time to save the rearguard before Hawke’s main force came up. His excuse was that when he saw the rearguard giving a good account of itself, he thought it could escape without his help. Moreover, he could not turn round until he had shown the way into Quiberon Bay to the ships immediately behind him.
By this time, isolated and abandoned, the four French ships in the rear were fighting tigerishly against the nine men-of-war in the Royal Navy van. By about 2.45 p.m. Magnanime, Swiftsure, Torbay, Dorsetshire, Resolution, Warspite, Montague, Revenge and Defiance were within gunshot of the French, with Hawke and the rest of the British fleet about six miles behind. Just before 3 p.m. the Revenge engaged the eighty-gun Formidable, flagship of Rear-Admiral St André du Verger, but the Frenchman stood away to rake the Magnifique, which soon had its topmast and foreyard carried away. The captains of the Dorsetshire and Defiance decided that their colleagues were strong enough to deal with the French rear and overtook them, taking fire as they went, hoping to catch up with Conflans. Soon after the action began, the elements took a hand and a heavy squall struck both fleets, with the Royal Navy ships taking a particular battering. The Temple was forced to double-reef her topsails; the Dorsetshire, with lee ports under water, had to luff in order to clear the water between decks; and the Torbay almost broached to and took so much water in the lee ports that the captain had to bring her up in the wind with all speed. At about 3.17 p.m. Hawke’s fleet was hit by such a heavy squall that the Chichester’s fore-topsail was carried away. The Magnanime, Warspite and Montague ran foul of each other, and in the collision all three lost jib-booms and sprit-sail yards. The Montague later reported the loss of jib-boom, spritsail, spritsail-topsail yard, driver boom and spare anchor as well as severe damage to the main chains and quarter.
The collision of the three Royal Navy ships momentarily halted the pursuit, but once the Magnanime got clear she overhauled the Formidable and engaged her in ferocious combat. Soon joined by the Warspite, the Royal Navy ship began to make steady inroads on the Formidable’s defences; in half an hour, despite much heroism, the French ship was fought to a standstill. But the Formidable’s stupendous performance should never be forgotten: completely surrounded, she battled on like a wounded panther, taking fire from successive ships. The admiring British assailants reported that she looked like a gigantic colander and still continued to fight, though virtually a floating wreck. At about this time the Magnanime detached to pursue the seventy-four-gun Héros, which had been in the thick of the fighting and had lost fore and mizzen topmasts. As the French vessel tried to make off for the south, the Magnanime overhauled her and raked her. The Chatham too came up, and shortly afterwards the Héros struck its colours. The devastation wrought by the Magnanime was such that every officer down to the rank of midshipman had been killed. There were 400 dead and wounded on board, the helm was shot away and the decks were strewn with wreckage. The surrendered Héros came to anchor but the gale was so fierce that no boats could be lowered to board her.
Just before the Héros struck, an even greater disaster hit the French. Shortly after 4 p.m. the seventy-four-gun Thésée bore down to engage the Torbay. Manoeuvring in a giant swell, both ships took the immiment risk of being swamped in order to use their main batteries. The French ship blasted four of the enemy sails and had the better of the gunnery, but Captain Kersaint de Coetnempren of the Thésée lacked Keppel’s brilliance as a seaman. Keppel flung the Torbay round into the wind as soon as water began to burst into his gun-ports. But the Thésée suddenly shipped an enormous sea through the cannon holes, capsized and went to the bottom in seconds. Kersaint, one of the rising stars of the French navy, perished alongside 650 of his men; only twenty-two survived. Horrified by the sea’s cruel treatment of a fellow mariner, Keppel launched boats into the seething sea-cauldron. His courage was matched by the grit of his tars: one boat’s crew picked up nine French survivors and floundered in the savage sea until after dark, when it finally found its way back to the Torbay. Part of the problem here was that Keppel after his narrow escape took his ship alongside the stricken Formidable to finish her off, administering the coup de grâce with a double broadside. On board the French ship were scenes of horror. After seeing his ship’s fore-topmast shot away, the wounded Duverger continued to direct operations from a chair on the quarterdeck until he received a fatal shot; his brother then took over and was shot in the same way; finally a second captain assumed command until he too was killed; then at last the Formidable struck, to the Resolution. It was no more than a floating carcass, its decks littered with corpses and torn to pieces by bullets and cannon-shot.
The saga of woes of the ships in the French rearguard was not yet ended. By this time the running battle had taken the combatants to the edge of the Cardinals where Conflans in the Soleil Royal had emerged at the entrance, still hoping to form his ships up in battle line or at least to double the Four head near Croisic and thus draw the English fleet away onto the open sea. The attempt to form line just inside the bay soon had to be abandoned as a total disaster; Conflans did not even manage to take up station in the centre. Before he could draw up his ships in a tight, defensive formation, they all had to be inside the bay, and they were not. Then the Magnanime swept into the bay, with French assailants swarming around her like killer whales around a rorqual. Before long other Royal Navy ships had come to her rescue, but by then Conflans’s would-be defensive line was thrown into confusion by a fresh development. The wind shifted to the north-west, making it impossible for the French to go about. They were now in a funnel with rocks on one side and the Royal Navy on the other.
With fifty ships of the line crammed into an area five miles long and six and a half broad, hemmed in by islands and shoals, Conflans’s fleet had no room to manoeuvre. There was a press of French ships in the bay, with the Royal Navy slavering nearby and the whole drama being played out under a grey, darkening sky, lit up by fires and mottled by clouds of smoke. Thousands of spectators, who had run out from Croisic and nearby villages, watched as the British and French ships rolled heavily on the great ocean swell that had followed them into the bay. Total confusion reigned and in places seemed likely to turn into pandemonium. A French officer wrote: ‘The confusion was dreadful when the van, in which I was, tried to go about. Part could not do it. We were in a funnel, as it were, all on top of each other, with rocks on one side of us and ships on another.’ Seeing that it was impossible to form a defensive line, Conflans opted for the escape scenario. Having now definitely decided to make for the open sea, accompanied by two other ships, he was making rapidly for the exit when Hawke in the Royal George rounded the Cardinals. Conflans was unlucky. On the way out he had shot up the Swiftsure, destroying her fore-topsail yard and causing her to broach to; in the open ocean this would have been the end of her. Taking additional damage in her tiller rope, the Swiftsure limped out of action, and lay to under a mizzen – the only sail she had left to set. But the ten-minute delay in sweeping her out of his path meant that Conflans did not get clear before Hawke spotted his ensign.
Hawke ordered the Royal George’s master to lay her alongside the Soleil Royal. The master protested vociferously that, in failing light and with a rising sea, such a manoeuvre was madness. It was then that, according to legend, Hawke made his famous reply: ‘You have done your duty in apprising me of the danger; let us next see how well you can comply with my orders. I say, lay me alongside the French Admiral!’ Hawke’s flagship caught up with Conflans and his flotilla at about 4.25 p.m., only to receive a heavy broadside from all three French ships. The two flagships exchanged broadsides, but then swept past each other as more ships became sucked into the confused mêlée, partly by osmosis, partly because they were uncontrollable in the weather. Astern of Hawke’s vessel other ships (the Union, Mars and Hero) were coming up to help him. Seeing Hawke manoeuvring to rake Conflans, the seventy-gun Intrépide, the only survivor of the five French ships in the rearguard, interposed itself between the two flagships and took the full force of the murderous gunnery from the Royal George. At 4.41 p.m. she sank almost instantly, dragging down with her 630 Breton sailors. There were no survivors and the tragedy was made more poignant as these were poor, conscripted peasants who had never been to sea before Conflans cleared from Brest. The fact that Captain Monthalais was himself a Breton did nothing to assuage the depression that fell on north-western France, as Brittany mourned its lost sons for months.
Meanwhile, while manoeuvring to avoid being raked by the Royal George, the Soleil Royal fell to leeward and then, in trying to tack, fouled two of the ships following her. Consequently she was unable to weather the Four and had to run back and anchor off Croisic. It was now past 5 p.m., the dark of a winter’s night had descended, it was blowing harder than ever and high seas were running even inside the bay; outside in the ocean enormous waves were building up. Hawke considered his options. Ahead of him lay the wave-besieged shore of Dumet Island, while close at hand and uncharted were the killer rocks and shoals of Croisic; even more peril lay to the south in the form of a seething chaos of breakers and combers washing around the dangerous Four shoal. All around him were unknown reefs and shoals just waiting for an unwary vessel, while outside in the Atlantic it sounded from the din of crashing surf as if the world was coming to an end.
Hawke had been lucky so far and he knew it; but he also knew when to cut his losses and not push his luck. At 5.30 p.m. he hauled down the signal for engagement, though not all his captains heeded the signal, continuing the fight until around 6 p.m. in their eagerness to prevent the enemy’s escape. Some of the Royal Navy ships thus came within an ace of running aground in the dusk. Finally, just after six o’clock, all firing ceased. It was said that the very last shots fired were by L’Orient. Then Hawke gave the signal to anchor – two guns fired from the flagship, without lights, so that only the vessels directly adjacent to the Royal George knew where it was anchored. Most of Hawke’s fleet anchored between Dumet Island and the Cardinals, but a few spent the night at rest in another part of the bay, while some intrepid souls (Swiftsure, Revenge, Dorsetshire and Defiance) actually stood out to sea.
Both sides spent the night in some anxiety and uncertainty, but the French were most beset by gloom. All that terrible day they had endured the moaning of the savage gale, the ceaseless rattle of blocks and creaking of yards. While the storm crashed around them, the infernal din was counterpoised by the slatting of canvas and the clatter of sheets, the booming of guns, the crash of falling spars, the shivering and splintering of woodwork, the groans of wounded men and the shrieks of poor souls drowning in the foam-flecked brine. Even the pitch, roll and yaw of the ships and the thrumming of backstays had been an agony to their taut-stretched nerves. And now they had to face the uncertainty of a hellish, black night. The French were the first to crack. Seven of their ships, led by Villan de Brosse in the Glorieux, tacking to avoid the rocks and shoals they at least knew about and which lay all around them, made their way deeper and deeper towards the estuary of the River Vilaine. Another French ship, the Juste, got out of the bay and headed north to the Loire estuary. Since both captains (the brothers Saint-Allouarn) had been killed, the First Lieutenant took command and managed to navigate the vessel out onto the open sea. They survived the storm and struggled all night to repair the smashed rigging and plug leaks but in vain. Next morning they had a fair wind for entering the Loire and made for St Nazaire. Miscalculating the falling tide and thus coming too close to land, the Juste struck a rock, pitching its complement into the sea. Although the crew took to the boats as the ship broke up, only a handful of the 630 men on board survived – and again the dead were all Bretons.
Unknowingly, Conflans had anchored right in the middle of the Royal Navy vessels and when morning came would be easy prey. There was no hope of rescue for eight ships were already out of the reckoning, seven in the Vilaine river and another a wreck on the Brittany coast. The masters of these ships had at least acted for the best according to their own lights. But in the case of Conflans’s deputy, the Chevalier de Bauffremont, the suspicion of cowardice, incompetence or dereliction of duty must be entertained. Bauffremont’s pilot warned him that to stay in the bay in the middle of reefs and shoals was supremely hazardous and advised him to make for the open sea. Bauffremont (on the Tonnant) conferred with his nearest colleague, Captain Guébriant of the L’Orient, whose pilot gave him the same advice. Concluding that Conflans ‘must have’ been similarly warned and must therefore be exiting the bay, Bauffremont, without sending out boats to try to locate the flagship, simply headed out to sea and sailed down to Rochefort. He claimed to be astonished to discover both that five vessels from the fleet were already there and that Conflans was not one of them. Taxed with running away, Bauffremont pointed out that a return to Brest was out of the question because of contrary winds, and that six ships (including his own) from three different divisions in the fleet had all independently come to the same conclusion he had reached; they had not all arrived at Rochefort together. Moreover, he was simply obeying standing orders, which stated that in the aftermath of a lost battle a captain should always steer for the nearest unobstructed port.