Famous Cutting-Out Expeditions

The Capture of the Chevrette, 1801. The original painting, by  Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) is perhaps the best – and certainly most dramatic – depiction ever of a boarding action. 

As illustrations of cool daring, of the courage that does not count numbers or depend on noise, nor flinch from flame or steel, few things are more wonderful than the many cutting-out stories to be found in the history of the British navy. The soldier in the forlorn hope, scrambling up the breach swept by grape and barred by a triple line of steadfast bayonets, must be a brave man. But it may be doubted whether he shows a courage so cool and high as that of a boat’s crew of sailors in a cutting-out expedition. The ship to be attacked lies, perhaps, floating in a tropic haze five miles off, and the attacking party must pull slowly, in a sweltering heat, up to the iron lips of her guns. The greedy, restless sea is under them, and a single shot may turn the eager boat’s crew at any instant into a cluster of drowning wretches. When the ship is reached, officers and men must clamber over bulwarks and boarding-netting, exposed, almost helplessly, as they climb, to thrust of pike and shot of musket, and then leap down, singly and without order, on to the deck crowded with foes. Or, perhaps, the ship to be cut out lies in a hostile port under the guard of powerful batteries, and the boats must dash in through the darkness, and their crews tumble, at three or four separate points, on to the deck of the foe, cut her cables, let fall her sails, and—while the mad fight still rages on her deck and the great battery booms from the cliff overhead—carry the ship out of the harbour. These, surely, are deeds of which only a sailor’s courage is capable! Let a few such stories be taken from faded naval records and told afresh to a new generation.

In July 1800 the 14-gun cutter Viper, commanded by acting-Lieutenant Jeremiah Coghlan, was attached to Sir Edward Pellew’s squadron off Port Louis. Coghlan, as his name tells, was of Irish blood. He had just emerged from the chrysalis stage of a midshipman, and, flushed with the joy of an independent command, was eager for adventure. The entrance to Port Louis was watched by a number of gunboats constantly on sentry-go, and Coghlan conceived the idea of jumping suddenly on one of these, and carrying her off from under the guns of the enemy’s fleet. He persuaded Sir Edward Pellew to lend him the flagship’s ten-oared cutter, with twelve volunteers. Having got this reinforcement, and having persuaded the Amethyst frigate to lend him a boat and crew, Mr. Jeremiah Coghlan proceeded to carry out another and very different plan from that he had ventured to suggest to his admiral. A French gun-brig, named the Cerbère, was lying in the harbour of St. Louis. She mounted three long 24 and four 6-pounders, and was moored, with springs in her cables, within pistol-shot of three batteries. A French seventy-four and two frigates were within gunshot of her. She had a crew of eighty-six men, sixteen of whom were soldiers. It was upon this brig, lying under three powerful batteries, within a hostile and difficult port, that Mr. Jeremiah Coghlan proposed, in the darkness of night, to make a dash. He added the Viper’s solitary midshipman, with himself and six of his crew, to the twelve volunteers on board the flagship’s cutter, raising its crew to twenty men, and, with the Amethyst’s boat and a small boat from the Viper, pulled off in the blackness of the night on this daring adventure.

The ten-oared cutter ran away from the other two boats, reached the Cerbère, found her with battle lanterns alight and men at quarters, and its crew at once jumped on board the Frenchman. Coghlan, as was proper, jumped first, landed on a trawl-net hung up to dry, and, while sprawling helpless in its meshes, was thrust through the thigh with a pike, and with his men—several also severely hurt—tumbled back into the boat. The British picked themselves up, hauled their boat a little farther ahead, clambered up the sides of the Cerbère once more, and were a second time beaten back with new wounds. They clung to the Frenchman, however, fought their way up to a new point, broke through the French defences, and after killing or wounding twenty-six of the enemy—or more than every fourth man of the Cerbère’s crew—actually captured her, the other two boats coming up in time to help in towing out the prize under a wrathful fire from the batteries. Coghlan had only one killed and eight wounded, himself being wounded in two places, and his middy in six. Sir Edward Pellew, in his official despatch, grows eloquent over “the courage which, hand to hand, gave victory to a handful of brave fellows over four times their number, and the skill which planned, conducted, and effected so daring an enterprise.” Earl St. Vincent, himself the driest and grimmest of admirals, was so delighted with the youthful Irishman’s exploit that he presented him with a handsome sword.

In 1811, again, Great Britain was at war with the Dutch—a tiny little episode of the great revolutionary war. A small squadron of British ships was cruising off Batavia. A French squadron, with troops to strengthen the garrison, was expected daily. The only fortified port into which they could run was Marrack, and the commander of the British squadron cruising to intercept the French ships determined to make a dash by night on Marrack, and so secure the only possible landing-place for the French. Marrack was defended by batteries mounting fifty-four heavy guns. The attacking force was to consist of 200 seamen and 250 troops, under the command of Lieutenant Lyons of the Minden. Just before the boats pushed off, however, the British commander learned that the Dutch garrison had been heavily reinforced, and deeming an assault too hazardous, the plan was abandoned. A few days afterwards Lyons, with the Minden’s launch and cutter, was despatched to land nineteen prisoners at Batavia, and pick up intelligence. Lyons, a very daring and gallant officer, learned that the Marrack garrison was in a state of sleepy security, and, with his two boats’ crews, counting thirty-five officers and men, he determined to make a midnight dash on the fort, an exploit which 430 men were reckoned too weak a force to attempt.

Lyons crept in at sunset to the shore, and hid his two boats behind a point from which the fort was visible. A little after midnight, just as the moon dipped below the horizon, Lyons stole with muffled oars round the point, and instantly the Dutch sentries gave the alarm. Lyons, however, pushed fiercely on, grounded his boats in a heavy surf under the very embrasures of the lower battery, and, in an instant, thirty-five British sailors were tumbling over the Dutch guns and upon the heavy-breeched and astonished Dutch gunners. The battery was carried. Lyons gathered his thirty-five sailors into a cluster, and, with a rush, captured the upper battery. Still climbing up, they reached the top of the hill, and found the whole Dutch garrison forming in line to receive them. The sailors instantly ran in upon the half-formed line, cutlass in hand; Lyons roared that he “had 400 men, and would give no quarter;” and the Dutch, finding the pace of events too rapid for their nerves, broke and fled. But the victorious British were only thirty-five in number, and were surrounded by powerful forces. They began at once to dismantle the guns and destroy the fort, but two Dutch gunboats in the bay opened fire on them, as did a heavy battery in the rear.

At daybreak a strong Dutch column was formed, and came on at a resolute and laborious trot towards the shattered gate of the fort. Lyons had trained two 24-pounders, loaded to the muzzle with musket balls, on the gate, left invitingly open. He himself stood, with lighted match, by one gun; his second in command, with another lighted match, by the other. They waited coolly by the guns till the Dutch, their officers leading, reached the gate, raising a tumult of angry guttural shouts as they came on. Then, from a distance of little over ten yards, the British fired. The head of the column was instantly smashed, its tail broken up into flying fragments. Lyons finished the destruction of the fort at leisure, sank one of the two gunboats with the last shot fired from the last gun before he spiked it, and marched off, leaving the British flag flying on the staff above the fort, where, in the fury of the attack, it had been hoisted in a most gallant fashion by the solitary middy of the party, a lad named Franks, only fifteen years old. One of the two boats belonging to the British had been bilged by the surf, and the thirty-five seamen—only four of them wounded—packed themselves into the remaining boat and pulled off, carrying with them the captured Dutch colours. Let the reader’s imagination illuminate, as the writer’s pen cannot, that midnight dash by thirty-five men on a heavily armed fort with a garrison twelve times the strength of the attacking force. Where in stories of warfare, ancient or modern, is such another tale of valour to be found? Lyons, however, was not promoted, as he had “acted without orders.”

A tale, with much the same flavour in it, but not so dramatically successful, has for its scene the coast of Spain. In August 1812, the British sloop Minstrel, of 24 guns, and the 18-gun brig Philomel, were blockading three small French privateers in the port of Biendom, near Alicante. The privateers were protected by a strong fort mounting 24 guns. By way of precaution, two of the ships were hauled on shore, six of their guns being landed, and formed into a battery manned by eighty of their crews. The Minstrel and her consort could not pretend to attack a position so strong, but they kept vigilant watch outside, and a boat from one ship or the other rowed guard every night near the shore. On the night of the 12th the Minstrel’s boat, with seven seamen, was in command of an Irish midshipman named Michael Dwyer. Dwyer had all the fighting courage of his race, with almost more of the gay disregard of odds than is natural to even an Irish midshipman. It occurred to Mr. Michael Dwyer that if he could carry by surprise the 6-gun battery, there would be a chance of destroying the privateers. A little before ten p.m. he pulled silently to the beach, at a point three miles distant from the battery, and, with his seven followers, landed, and was instantly challenged by a French sentry. Dwyer by some accident knew Spanish, and, with ready-witted audacity, replied in that language that “they were peasants.” They were allowed to pass, and these seven tars, headed by a youth, set off on the three miles’ trudge to attack a fort!

There were eighty men in the battery when Michael and his amazing seven rushed upon it. There was a wild struggle for five minutes, and then the eighty fled before the eight, and the delighted middy found himself in possession of the battery. But the alarm was given, and two companies of French infantry, each one hundred strong, came resolutely up to retake the battery. Eight against eighty seemed desperate odds, but eight against two hundred is a quite hopeless proportion. Yet Mr. Dwyer and his seven held the fort till one of their number was killed, two (including the midshipman) badly wounded, and, worst of all, their ammunition exhausted. When the British had fired their last shot, the French, with levelled bayonets, broke in; but the inextinguishable Dwyer was not subdued till he had been stabbed in seventeen places, and of the whole eight British only one was left unwounded. The French amazement when they discovered that the force which attacked them consisted of seven men and a boy, was too deep for words.

Perhaps the most brilliant cutting-out in British records is the carrying of the Chevrette by the boats of three British frigates in Cameret Bay in 1801. A previous and mismanaged attempt had put the Chevrette on its guard; it ran a mile and a half farther up the bay, moored itself under some heavy batteries, took on board a powerful detachment of infantry, bringing its number of men up to 339, and then hoisted in defiance a large French ensign over the British flag. Some temporary redoubts were thrown up on the points of land commanding the Chevrette, and a heavily armed gunboat was moored at the entrance of the bay as a guard-boat. After all these preparations the Chevrette’s men felt both safe and jubilant; but the sight of that French flag flying over the British ensign was a challenge not to be refused, and at half-past nine that night the boats of the three frigates—the Doris, the Uranie, and the Beaulieu—fifteen in all, carrying 280 officers and men, were in the water and pulling off to attack the Chevrette.

Lieutenant Losack, in command, with his own and five other boats, suddenly swung off in the gloom in chase of what he supposed to be the look-out boat of the enemy, ordering the other nine boats to lie on their oars till he returned. But time stole on; he failed to return; and Lieutenant Maxwell, the next in command, reflecting that the night was going, and the boats had six miles to pull, determined to carry out the expedition, though he had only nine boats and less than 180 men, instead of fifteen boats and 280 men. He summoned his little squadron in the darkness about him, and gave exact instructions. As the boats dashed up, one was to cut the Chevrette’s cables; when they boarded, the smartest topmen, named man by man, were to fight their way aloft and cut loose the Chevrette’s sails; one of the finest sailors in the boats, Wallis, the quartermaster of the Beaulieu, was to take charge of the Chevrette’s helm. Thus, at one and the same instant the Chevrette was to be boarded, cut loose, its sails dropped, and its head swung round towards the harbour mouth.

At half-past twelve the moon sank. The night was windless and black; but the bearing of the Chevrette had been taken by compass, and the boats pulled gently on, till, ghost-like in the gloom, the doomed ship was discernible. A soft air from the land began to blow at that moment. Suddenly the Chevrette and the batteries overhead broke into flame. The boats were discovered! The officers leaped to their feet in the stern of each boat, and urged the men on. The leading boats crashed against the Chevrette’s side. The ship was boarded simultaneously on both bows and quarters. The force on board the Chevrette, however, was numerous enough to make a triple line of armed men round the whole sweep of its bulwarks; they were armed with pikes, tomahawks, cutlasses, and muskets, and they met the attack most gallantly, even venturing in their turn to board the boats. By this time, however, the nine boats Maxwell was leading had all come up, and although the defence outnumbered the attack by more than two to one, yet the British were not to be denied. They clambered fiercely on board; the topmen raced aloft, found the foot-ropes on the yards all strapped up, but running out, cutlass in hand, they cut loose the Chevrette’s sails. Wallis, meanwhile, had fought his way to the wheel, slew two of the enemy in the process, was desperately wounded himself, yet stood steadily at the wheel, and kept the Chevrette under command, the batteries by this time opening upon the ship a fire of grape and heavy shot.

In less than three minutes after the boats came alongside, although nearly every second man of their crews had been killed or wounded, the three topsails and courses of the Chevrette had fallen, the cables had been cut, and the ship was moving out in the darkness. She leaned over to the light breeze, the ripple sounded louder at her stern, and when the French felt the ship under movement, it for the moment paralysed their defence. Some jumped overboard; others threw down their arms and ran below. The fight, though short, had been so fierce that the deck was simply strewn with bodies. Many of the French who had retreated below renewed the fight there; they tried to blow up the quarter-deck with gunpowder in their desperation, and the British had to fight a new battle between decks with half their force while the ship was slowly getting under weigh. The fire of the batteries was furious, but, curiously enough, no important spar was struck, though some of the boats towing alongside were sunk. And while the batteries thundered overhead, and the battle still raged on the decks below, the British seamen managed to set every sail on the ship, and even got topgallant yards across. Slowly the Chevrette drew out of the harbour. Just then some boats were discovered pulling furiously up through the darkness; they were taken to be French boats bent on recapture, and Maxwell’s almost exhausted seamen were summoned to a new conflict. The approaching boats, however, turned out to be the detachment under Lieutenant Losack, who came up to find the work done and the Chevrette captured.

The fight on the deck of the Chevrette had been of a singularly deadly character. The British had a total of 11 killed and 57 wounded; the Chevrette lost 92 killed and 62 wounded, amongst the slain being the Chevrette’s captain, her two lieutenants, and three midshipmen. Many stories are told of the daring displayed by British seamen in this attack. The boatswain of the Beaulieu, for example, boarded the Chevrette’s taffrail; he took one glance along the crowded decks, waved his cutlass, shouted “Make a lane there!” and literally carved his way through to the forecastle, which he cleared of the French, and kept clear, in spite of repeated attacks, while he assisted to cast the ship about and make sail with as much coolness as though he had been on board the Beaulieu. Wallis, who fought his way to the helm of the Chevrette, and, though wounded, kept his post with iron coolness while the fight raged, was accosted by his officer when the fight was over with an expression of sympathy for his wounds. “It is only a prick or two, sir,” said Wallis, and he added he “was ready to go out on a similar expedition the next night.” A boatswain’s mate named Ware had his left arm cut clean off by a furious slash of a French sabre, and fell back into the boat. With the help of a comrade’s tarry fingers Ware bound up the bleeding stump with rough but energetic surgery, climbed with his solitary hand on board the Chevrette, and played a most gallant part in the fight.

The fight that captured the Chevrette is almost without parallel. Here was a ship carried off from an enemy’s port, with the combined fleets of France and Spain looking on. The enemy were not taken by surprise; they did not merely defy attack, they invited it. The British had to assail a force three times their number, with every advantage of situation and arms. The British boats were exposed to a heavy fire from the Chevrette itself and from the shore batteries before they came alongside. The crews fought their way up the sides of the ship in the face of overwhelming odds; they got the vessel under weigh while the fight still raged, and brought her out of a narrow and difficult roadstead, before they had actually captured her. To quote the Naval Chronicle for 1802:

All this was done, in the presence of the grand fleet of the enemy; it was done by nine boats out of fifteen, which originally set out upon the expedition; it was done under the conduct of an officer who, in the absence of the person appointed to command, undertook it upon his own responsibility, and whose intrepidity, judgment, and presence of mind, seconded by the wonderful exertions of the officers and men under his command, succeeded in effecting an enterprise which, by those who reflect upon its peculiar circumstances, will ever be regarded with astonishment.




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