British coastal assault on St Cast in Brittany in September 1758.
A German map, published in Nuremberg, a major map-making centre, of the British coastal assault on St Cast in Brittany in September 1758. Designed to attack the French privateering base at St Malo, the British had to re-embark with the loss of 750 men in the face of a larger French army. The previous month, there had been a successful attack on the port of Cherbourg and its fortifications had been destroyed. These attacks were mounted in part to take pressure off Britain’s ally, Frederick II, the Great, of Russia, but also to conform to a political agenda focused on demonstrating that the government was pursuing national interests and not simply sending troops to Germany.
Great Britain planned a “descent” (an amphibious demonstration or raid) on Rochefort, a joint operation to overrun the town and burn the shipping in the Charente. The expedition set out on 8 September 1757, Sir John Mordaunt commanding the troops and Sir Edward Hawke the fleet. On 23 September, the Isle d’Aix was taken, but due to dithering by military staff such time was lost that Rochefort became unassailable, and the expedition abandoned the Isle d’Aix, returned to Great Britain on 1 October.
Despite the operational failure and debated strategic success of the descent on Rochefort, William Pitt — who saw purpose in this type of asymmetric enterprise — prepared to continue such operations. An army was assembled under the command of Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough; he was aided by Lord George Sackville. The naval escorts for the expedition were commanded by Anson, Hawke, and Howe. The army landed on 5 June 1758 at Cancalle Bay, proceeded to St. Malo, and burned the shipping in the harbor; the arrival of French relief forces caused the British to avoid a siege, and the troops re-embarked. An attack on Havre de Grace was called off, and the fleet sailed on to Cherbourg; but the weather being bad and provisions low, that too was abandoned, and the expedition returned, having damaged French privateering and provided a further strategic demonstration against the French coast.
Pitt now prepared to send troops into Germany; and both Marlborough and Sackville, disgusted by what they perceived as the futility of the “descents”, obtained commissions in that army. The elderly General Bligh was appointed to command a new “descent”, escorted by Howe. The campaign began propitiously with the Raid on Cherbourg. With the support of the navy to bombard Cherbourg and cover their landing, the army drove off the French force detailed to oppose their landing, captured Cherbourg, and destroyed its fortifications, docks, and shipping.
The troops were re-embarked and the fleet moved them to the Bay of St. Lunaire in Brittany where, on 3 September, they were landed to again operate against St. Malo; however, this action proved impractical. Worsening weather forced the two armies to separate: the ships sailed for the safer anchorage of St. Cast, while the army proceeded overland. The tardiness of Bligh in moving his forces allowed a French force of 10,000 men from Brest to catch up with him and open fire on the re-embarkation troops. A rear-guard of 1,400 under General Dury held off the French while the rest of the army embarked; they could not be saved, 750, including Dury, were killed and the rest captured.