Fireships at Basque Roads

The largest of the fireships sent in against the French fleet at Basque Roads was the Mediator, a ship with a chequered career. Built as an East Indiaman in 1781, she was purchased by the Navy in 1804 and employed as a frigate, but was soon converted to a storeship. At nearly 700 tons, she was very big for a fireship, but something particularly threatening may have been required in the circumstances. She is shown here just after ignition, with the crew escaping in the boat astern; but the proximity of the French fleet is artistic licence.

Map illustrating the position of the anchored French fleet shortly before the British attack on the night of 11 April.

After the battle of Trafalgar Napoleon did not give up on his navy, but tried to rebuild it gradually, which meant that many French ports contained well-found operational warships. Beyond the harbour, there was inevitably a British blockading squadron, but every so often small flotillas of French ships managed to break out and make a specific foray against British interests. One major breakout occurred in February 1809, but for the French it did not go as planned.

The Brest blockading squadron, under the command of Admiral Lord Gambier (1756–1833), was forced from its station for a few days by heavy weather. This was long enough to allow eight French ships of the line, under the command of Rear Admiral Jean Baptiste Philibert Willaumez (1763–1845), to slip out of the harbour of Brest at the break of dawn. His orders were to drive off the English squadron blockading Lorient, allowing the ships there to make their escape. They would then sail for the island of Oléron in the Bay of Biscay and pick up troops, supplies and any other ships at Rochefort before heading for the West Indies for a campaign of commerce-raiding. Once they had disappeared into the open seas of the Atlantic, they would pose a real problem for the British.

They got no further than the Pointe du Raz before the line of French ships was spotted by a British warship, and quickly all the squadrons of the Navy in the region were brought together. Visual contact was maintained with the French until the next day, and in the evening twilight they saw Willaumez and his ships sail into the Pertuis d’Antioche, the waters between the island of Oléron and the mainland, where they dropped anchor under the protection of the coastal batteries. The British referred to these shallow waters as the Basque Roads or the Aix Roads.

The British fleet anchored further offshore, in the narrows just off the city of La Rochelle, and the positions of both fleets reawakened old ideas of what a fireship could do in this situation. Admiral Gambier took all possible precautions against a surprise fireship attack, ordering his ships to buoy their anchors and thus be ready to slip their cables at a moment’s notice. Boats were kept in the water with poles, chains and grapnels to fend off approaching fireships. The apprehension of fire-ships was mutual. Gambier and his advisers vigorously discussed the best method of dealing with the enemy. One camp suggested a quick forceful Nelson-style assault, bearing down on the enemy with guns blazing. Against this, the navigation was known to be tricky, and the French ships were practically unreachable at the mouth of the Charente under the shelter of shore-batteries, so the losses in ships and men would be heavy. The other school of thought, which included Gambier himself, advocated a fireship attack, despite all the risks and imponderables this entailed. But one way or another, something had to be done to neutralise the threat posed by the French force.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, had already outlined his position on 11 March, pointing out that the situation looked promising for a fireship and recommending this method. Gambier, however, was one of those naval officers of the time who were really uneasy about fireships, red-hot shot and explosive devices with time-delay fuzes, looking on these unorthodox methods as somehow unfair, unmanly and worthy of assassins rather than Christians. His profoundly religious, rather pedantic character was summed up by his nickname ‘Dismal Jimmy’; ‘It is a horrible mode of warfare’, he wrote, ‘and the attempt very hazardous, if not desperate.’ He wanted reassurance from the Admiralty, but in London the authorities had no qualms whatsoever and had already prepared for the enterprise. Twelve fireships and five explosion-vessels had already been dispatched to the Basque Roads.

Gambier learned also that William Congreve, an artillerist and engineer, was on his way, bringing a special invention and an operating crew. His apparatus, which had already proved successful on land and at sea, made use of black-powder rockets to set enemy ships on fire from a distance. It weighed about nineteen kilograms and had a range of 270 metres. Unlike a mortar, it had no recoil, so it could be fired from small boats, but on the other hand it was not particularly accurate.

Then the British had a stroke of luck. On 19 March the frigate Impérieuse sailed into Plymouth. She had come from the Mediterranean and was under the command of Lord Thomas Cochrane, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775–1860). Scarcely had Cochrane landed than he was summoned by telegraph to the Admiralty, where Lord Mulgrave asked the daredevil captain what he thought about the potential of a fireship attack at Basque Roads. The Admiralty knew that in Cochrane they had the right man – he was not only a brilliant and inventive warship commander, but also an unruly individualist, and as an independent member of Parliament he had been a vocal critic of Admiralty policy; better, therefore, to involve him in any controversial operation from the outset, so if things went awry he would be poorly placed to make trouble. Furthermore, as a frigate captain he had enjoyed a successful career as a raider up and down the French coast, so he was familiar with the region. His specialised knowledge and expertise would be essential.

Cochrane, unlike Mulgrave, did not favour a classic fireship attack. He thought it would almost certainly miscarry if the normal defensive measures were used to counter it, so he proposed that explosion-vessels be deployed as well. The Admiralty accepted the plan, and after some hesitation, Cochrane was persuaded to lead the attack, although he knew that this would lead to problems with some of the more senior officers under Gambier’s command. Many were jealous of his reputation and some felt that the appointment of a mere post captain was a poor reflection on the competence of the fleet. But time was of the essence, and each day that passed increased the chance of a French breakout, so Cochrane’s energy and enterprising spirit were invaluable. What the British did not know was that the French fleet had been divided by a power-struggle among the French senior officers, which was eventually resolved when Vice Admiral Zacharie Jacques Théodore Allemand prevailed over Rear Admiral Willaumez and took command of the fleet.

By 3 April Cochrane was with Gambier’s ships and was finally was able to get a good look at the tactical situation east of the island of Oléron. For the moment there was not much more to do, since the explosion-vessels and rockets had not yet arrived. He started by converting a few available transports; using the materials found on board the ships of the line, the shipwrights were able to outfit a dozen conventional fireships, and the relatively large Mediator (a purchased merchantman serving as a Fifth Rate) was selected to smash through the floating boom, behind which lay the French fleet. Three of the merchant ships were converted to explosion-vessels. Their sides were strengthened to increase the violence of the explosion, and in each hold were packed 1,500 powder-kegs in big casks, with bomb shells secured on the covers and 3,000 hand-grenades packed around them. The whole thing would function like a gigantic mortar. A fuze was laid from the explosive to the stern so that the crew would have about twelve minutes to make their escape. Meanwhile, volunteers were called for throughout the fleet to serve as captains and crews of these vessels.

For these crews there was not just the risk of premature explosion, but also the danger that if captured they would be brutally handled, if not shot out of hand. So they all had to have a prepared cover-story – for example, that they had fallen overboard or belonged to a merchant ship which had previously sunk.

On 10 April more fireships from England reached the Basque Roads, giving Cochrane a total of twenty. His force was now complete. Time was pressing, so the following evening, with a strong wind and high sea, the volunteer captains assembled aboard Lord Gambier’s flagship. Cochrane gave them their final instructions, explaining that he himself would lead the attack in the first explosion-vessel. To this end, the Impérieuse had already sailed in the direction of the boom, with two explosion-vessels in tow. Cochrane would attempt to break the boom with one of them, and if that did not work the second one would follow. Once the way was clear, the fireship captains were to take advantage immediately of the flood tide, this second wave attacking the French ships themselves. Three other frigates would take up predetermined positions in order to pick up the escaping fireship crews.

It was dark as pitch when Cochrane, with a lieutenant and a crew of four men in one of the explosion-vessels, reached the area where they believed the boom to be. They could not see the French ships, and could only guess how far they were from the boom. Cochrane ordered the men into the boat and waited for the moment when he would light his portfire and set the fuze alight. Then he would spring into the boat and the men would pull for their lives against wind, waves and tide to ensure that they were as distant as possible when the explosion occurred. There is something resembling an eyewitness account of this phase of the action; although, strictly, it is fiction, its representation of the explosion-vessel’s approach to the boom and the following detonation is supported by factual reports. The author was Captain Frederick Marryat (1792–1848), who was to call on his experience of service with the Royal Navy for a series of authentic stories of the maritime world, producing heroes who were forerunners of C S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey. At this time he was a midshipman aboard the Imperieuse and a volunteer in one of the explosion-vessels. In his first book, Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer, he describes the attack:

The night was very dark, and it blew a strong breeze directly in upon the Isle d’Aix, and the enemy’s fleet. Two of our frigates had been previously so placed as to serve as beacons to direct the course of the fire-ships. They each displayed a clear and brilliant light; the fire-ships were directed to pass between these; after which, their course up to the boom which guarded the anchorage was clear, and not easily to be mistaken.

Marryat, in the persona of his hero Midshipman Frank Mildmay, recalls exactly what it was like to serve aboard an explosion-ship. ‘They were filled with layers of shells and powder, heaped one upon another: the quantity on board of each vessel was enormous. We had a four-oared gig, a small, narrow thing (nicknamed by the sailors a ‘coffin’), to make our escape in.’

Marryat describes how the strong wind drove the ship against the boom, and how the frigates remained in the darkness. Into Mildmay’s head came a line from Dante: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!’ The ship crashed hard broadside into the boom, and the crew just managed to spring into their boat, while Mildmay seized his torch. Only later was he able to express the sentiments that came to him at that moment:

If ever I felt the sensation of fear, it was after I had lighted this port-fire, which was connected with the train. Until I was fairly in the boat, and out of the reach of the explosion – which was inevitable and might be instantaneous – the sensation was horrid. I was standing on a mine; any fault in the port-fire, which sometimes will happen; any trifling quantity of gunpowder lying in the interstices of the deck, would have exploded the whole in a moment. Only one minute and a half of port-fire was allowed. I had therefore no time to lose.

Finally, he lit the fuze and leaped into the boat, at which the men began to row as hard as they could to get as far away as possible … ‘we were not two hundred yards from her when she exploded’.

Some distance away, the crews of the English ships perched in the rigging and stared tensely into the night, wondering when they would see the flashes of the explosion-vessels among the French ships. Many of them thought it ‘a cruel substitute for a manly engagement’.

The French had been forewarned of a fireship attack and so had taken appropriate countermeasures. They imagined the boom to be unbreachable, constructed as it was out of hundreds of metres of stout spars, lashed together with chains and anchored to the sea-floor with large iron blocks. Behind this, they felt secure, but as an additional precaution their boats were gathered along the boom.

The attack succeeded more quickly than Cochrane had expected, the first explosion ripping apart the quiet of the night. Shells, grenades and wreckage from the ships flew in all directions, at the same time setting off the Congreve rockets, which disappeared into the distance with a fearsome hissing like glowing snakes. An observer on the British side wrote later: ‘Here was exhibited a grand display of fire-works at the expense of John Bull; no gala night at Ranelagh or Vauxhall could be compared to it.’ The boom was torn from its moorings, and the energy of 1,500 powder-kegs swept a violent wall of water before it. The boat with Cochrane’s fleeing crew had not got far before the wreckage of their former vessel and the rest of its explosive cargo came down around them. The ‘coffin’ bobbed like a cork on the waves and then was swamped, and they were rescued by the skin of their teeth. Ten minutes later the second vessel blew sky-high.

Now the second phase of the attack got under way. First Cochrane sailed his frigate through the breach in the boom, followed by about twenty unlighted silhouettes. But the fireship flotilla quickly fell into disorder, with only four of them coming within striking distance of the French warships (their principal target was the flagship of Admiral Allemand, the Océan). In panic cables were slipped, guns and ammunition were thrown overboard, and the ships drifted uncontrollably towards shoals, ran aground or collided with each other. But none of the fireships caused direct damage, with most burning out in the darkness, far from any target. It was the centuries-old problem of fire-ship captains losing their nerve, setting their vessels on fire too early and abandoning them. Also demonstrated was the huge psychological effect these weapons could have. The disorder in the French fleet arose because the men saw the fire-ships but could not be sure they were not more explosion-vessels, which would be more difficult to counter, and all discipline vanished. Later during his exile on St Helena, Napoleon, discussing this phenomenon with one of his English warders, concluded: ‘They ought not to have been alarmed by your brûlots, but fear deprived them of their senses, and they no longer knew how to act in their own defence.’

In the morning light of 12 April the extent of the disaster suffered by the French fleet became visible. The tide had turned at midnight, and as it ebbed eleven of the great ships of the line had been left high and dry, keeled over at perilous angles, with their guns unable to bear. As long as the tide was out, they remained an easy target for a second attack, so Cochrane signalled Gambier to inform him of this unrivalled and very promising opportunity. Gambier, however, hesitated to launch an all-out attack.

Naval historians still disagree about the reason: was it timidity, or did he just resent the attempt by a junior captain to browbeat his admiral? However, faced with the commander’s inaction, Cochrane decided on his own initiative to move on the enemy without delay, believing that a lot more destruction could be inflicted on the stranded ships. With the support of a small detachment from the main fleet, he did succeed in irreparably damaging one or two more before Gambier ordered him to break off the attack. Cochrane was furious, and eventually Gambier ordered him to return to England. Although this was not a case of total annihilation, the French had been forced to abandon their planned Caribbean expedition, and Napoleon later used the word ‘imbécile’ to describe the French admiral who had allowed his ships to get into this sad situation. However, things did not go well for the British admiral either.

At home, Cochrane was hailed as the hero and was made a Knight Commander of the Bath, an honour awarded only for outstanding achievement. This event marks the point at which honours and social accolades replaced the financial rewards and prospects of promotion that successful fireship captains of an earlier era had enjoyed. However, Gambier himself demanded credit, as commander-in-chief, for the success of the action, and this roused the enmity of Cochrane. As a Member of Parliament, Cochrane objected to a plan to offer a vote of thanks to the man who, in his view, had merely observed the battle from afar. Stung by the criticism, Gambier demanded a court-martial and, not surprisingly, he was found not guilty by his colleagues. For Cochrane, things went downhill from then onwards, in part because his outspoken attitude made him many enemies in the Navy and the government. The senior naval authorities deemed him ‘uncontrollable’, and his career stalled. Later Cochrane was implicated in a stock market fraud, and was stripped of his honours, lost his seat in Parliament, and was thrown out of the Service. He remained a popular hero in Britain, with many admirers and supporters, but decided that if his native country did not appreciate his talents sufficiently he would take them abroad.

Throughout the rest of his long adventurous life, Cochrane continued to develop unconventional weapons for use against ships or coastal installations. He went on trying to improve explosion-vessels, one of his innovations being the addition of small metal particles – like the terrorist’s nail-bomb – designed to maximise casualties. These were thought by his superiors to be ‘effective but inhumane’ and were not pursued. As the Duke of Wellington said in his inimitably succinct style, ‘Two can play at that game.’ Some of Cochrane’s schemes even presaged the use of poison gas in war; these were kept secret until 1908. For attacking coastal fortresses he dreamed up a new version of the well-known ‘smoke-ship’ of Sir Francis Drake, known as the ‘sulphur-vessel’ and inspired by a visit to sulphur mines in Sicily in 1811. On the upper deck of a small vessel he planned to spread a layer of charcoal and lumps of sulphur. The burning charcoal would cause the sulphur to melt, emitting smoke which would cause coughing by irritating the airways. He envisaged these vessels being deployed with favourable wind and tide, emitting ‘noxious effluvia’ as they drifted towards shore installations and causing their garrisons to take to their heels to escape the stink. He also came up with idea of the ‘temporary mortar’ – a small vessel in which the decks were stripped out, and a bed of clay laid in its bottom planking. This was covered with scrap metal and gunpowder, and finally with a layer of animal carcasses and rows of shells. By appropriate ballasting, the whole vessel was heeled to one side to ‘aim’ it at its target, and it would then explode like a gigantic mortar.

Cochrane would get the opportunity to put some of these notions in to practice during the Greek War of Independence.