Nelson and the British Navy Frustrate Napoleon’s Strategy in Egypt

Aboukir Bay: The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, Nicholas Pocock, 1808, National Maritime Museum

A week after the French occupied Cairo, Lord Nelson and his British naval task force appeared off the coast of Alexandria. French warships were anchored in shallow water just northeast of the city in Aboukir Bay in a line parallel to the shore. French Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers believed he had positioned his ships close enough to the shore to prevent British warships from getting between the French line and the shore. Thus, the arrayed French warships, in combination, had nearly 500 guns facing the sea, as their commanders believed that would be the only direction from which an attack could be mounted. Brueys’s fleet included 13 ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates; however, half of the Frenchmen serving aboard the vessels were under 18 years of age and most had never seen combat.

Boldness in war often initiates its own dynamic, creating opportunities that would not have been available without first seizing the initiative and “wrong-footing” the opponent in a dash of energy, speed, and decisive force. Such attributes had been part of the French army for centuries; they certainly were part of what made Napoleon one of the greatest military commanders in recorded history. However, the British navy had developed on sea what the French had perfected on land. Conducting military operations on the European continent offered interior lines from which to operate, and the French excelled in maneuver. However, the advantages offered in Europe were not available for a global French expeditionary force where SLOCs factored into operations. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British fleet sailed the world’s oceans without peer.

On August 1, 1798, following a month in which French military power destroyed the Mamluk army in Egypt and sent the Ottoman viceroy in headlong retreat into Syria, the British naval task force consisting of 13 ships-of-the-line finally located the French fleet supporting Napoleon’s land campaign. The British naval commanders were not aware of the configuration of the seabed between the French line of ships and the shore, but, they took a calculated risk and maneuvered half the British ships between the French and the shore. Once in position, Nelson’s ships were able to open fire from two directions. Admiral Brueys’s 118-gun flagship, the L’Oriente, took volley after volley, setting fires that eventually reached her powder magazine, which then created a massive explosion. Two French ships-of-the-line and two frigates were able to cut their cables and fight their way out to sea. By the time the battle was over, a day later, one French ship was at the bottom of the bay, three still floating but generally unrecognizable, and nine French warships captured.

The English were then in a position not only to patrol the coasts of North Africa and Egypt but also, having coordinated their efforts with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to traverse the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean. It was said that “Napoleon did indeed have Egypt,” but cut off from the sea, “Egypt actually had Napoleon.” On September 11, 1798, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire declared war on France and formed an alliance with Britain, Austria, Russia, and Naples. Shortly thereafter, on October 21, the people of Cairo began rioting against the French.

Having received information that an Ottoman army was forming in Syria with the objective of attacking his forces in Egypt, Napoleon decided to strike first, and on February 6, 1799, commenced operations in Palestine as he proceeded north to Syria. With a force of 13,000 troops, Napoleon fought and overran enemy forces at El Arish (February 8–19), Gaza (February 24–25), and Jaffa (March 3–7), as he moved north toward the Syrian border. By mid-March, Napoleon laid siege to Acre and from March 17 to May 21 launched 7 assaults against the seaport fortress and dealt with 11 offensive operations from the city’s besieged forces followed by the French temporarily halting the siege and withdrawing at the approach of a large army coming out of Syria. Napoleon then turned and attacked the approaching Ottoman-Syrian army at the Battle of Mount Tabor where he defeated and dispersed the force. He then resumed the siege of Acre.

Following the arrival of intelligence that a combined British-Ottoman fleet was planning on transporting a large Ottoman army for insertion into Egypt, Napoleon halted siege operations at Acre and returned to Egypt. In July 1799, the British-Ottoman fleet transported an 18,000-man Ottoman army and landed at Aboukir Bay. Napoleon promptly engaged this force in an attack mounted on July 25, killing or driving into the sea nearly 11,000 Turkish troops and taking 6,000 prisoners, including the commander of the force, Mustafa Pasha.

Following the victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the French Directoire and other French leaders knew that Napoleon Bonaparte was too valuable a military leader for them to allow him to perish in the Middle Eastern theater surrounded by an overwhelming assortment of enemies and with the French unable to support or resupply his forces by sea. After the failure of French forces to take Acre, coupled with the siege of the French garrison on Malta (which would eventually fall to the British on September 5, 1800), and with the British cooperating with the Ottoman Empire, the French government knew that French control in Egypt, even if sustainable in the short term, would not create the conditions that would allow France to use it for launching operations in South Asia or in operations regarding succession issues of a crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Without the ability to challenge British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea, with Britain’s intent on protecting access to India through Egypt, and without a commitment of treasure and manpower that far exceeded that which French leaders were prepared to make at the time in the Middle East, France could not successfully and politically consolidate military gains in Egypt, Palestine, or Syria. If Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had proven anything (beyond his brilliance as an operational and tactical commander), it was that even with one of the most capable generals in history, commanding one of the finest armies in history, the political objective of leveraging tactical military supremacy in order to establish a liberal democracy within a culture fractured by years of autocratic rule was, at the time, strategically and operationally unsustainable.

British victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Following operations at Aboukir Bay, arrangements were quietly made for Napoleon to return to France where he would be promoted first consul. On August 22, 1799, Napoleon unceremoniously, accompanied by a small contingent of aides and staff, left Egypt by sea. General Jean-Baptiste Kleber was named commander of the French forces that remained in Egypt. Kleber was tasked with an orderly evacuation of French forces, but preliminary negotiations with the British were unsuccessful, and Kleber was forced to plan for continued military operations to protect French forces in Egypt. The French under Kleber successfully battled the Anglo-Ottoman coalition until 1800 when Kleber was assassinated in Cairo by a Syrian, and command of French forces was transferred to General Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French convert to Islam. Following the transfer of command, an Anglo-Ottoman invasion force surrounded French forces at Alexandria and Cairo. French army forces at Cairo surrendered on June 18, 1801, and Menou personally surrendered the Alexandria garrison on September 3. By September end, all French forces had been withdrawn from Egypt.

Following the departure of French forces from Egypt, Lord Nelson, the British admiral who helped sink French plans for the Middle East, observed at the time:

I think their objective is to possess themselves of some port in Egypt and to fix themselves at the head of the Red Sea in order to get a formidable army into India; and in concert with Tipu Siab [Sultan of Mysore], to drive us if possible from India.

Hence, the French objectives of establishing a foothold in Egypt to facilitate a move against Constantinople, the British in India, or both, were never reached. The actual results included the utter destruction of 700 years of Mamluk control in Egypt and the establishment of a vivid awareness within ruling circles in the Middle East as to how far the region had fallen behind European military capabilities and Western technology. Less apparent, but certainly not lost on an observant few, was the remarkable energy being generated by a revolutionary people under the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality.


The mixture of science and mysticism in Swedenborg is an apt symbolisation of the Janus face of the eighteenth century in general. While philosophers like Berkeley, Kant and Hume raised epistemological issues that still baffle the world’s best minds today, ordinary people went to public executions, and the thief who stole an apple could be hanged at Tyburn Tree under England’s ‘Bloody Code’. Hume’s devastating Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were so subversive of normal Christian belief that the great Scottish philosopher did not dare publish them in his lifetime. But meanwhile, in benighted areas of the world coming within the European orbit, primitive people worshipped sharks, crocodiles and snakes. These primitive beliefs were borne in on Europeans very forcibly in 1759 when France and Britain contended for mastery of the West Indies. Of the fifteen million slaves taken from West Africa to the New World in the eighteenth century, at the height of the slave trade, about 42 per cent went to the West Indies, and many of these (10,000–12,000 a year) were uplifted from the kingdom of Dahomey, whose great period was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Along with the slaves Dahomey exported the dark pagan religion of voodoo or snake worship, which underwent various changes in the Caribbean and was in turn re-exported to French Louisiana. The island of Martinique, the cockpit for Anglo-French rivalry in the Caribbean, was second only to French-speaking Haiti as a centre for voodoo, to the point where in 1782 the Governor of New Orleans, alarmed at the arrival in North America of this new devil-cult, forbade the import of slaves from that island. His alarm was understandable. Voodoo involves snakes, animal sacrifice and the drinking of blood. In the classic voodoo ceremony, priests designated as a ‘king’ or ‘queen’ would open a box inside which was a snake. A boiling cauldron would then be prepared into which chickens, frogs, cats, snails and, always, the snake, would be thrown. A male dancer, representing ‘the Great Zombi’ (‘Le Grand Zombi’) would then officiate and all participants in the rite would drink from the cauldron, washing down the disgusting mixture with raw alcohol; the evening would then end in an orgy. The white rulers feared voodoo, not so much that black magic would actually be used against them but that voodoo could be used by troublemakers to ‘legitimate’ plots, slave revolts and revolution itself.

The West Indies were widely perceived as a prize supremely worth fighting for, since sugar was the biggest business of eighteenth-century colonial empires. In 1775 sugar made up one-fifth of all British imports and was worth five times Britain’s tobacco imports. What this meant was that to British ministerial minds, the West Indies was a more important area than North America and Britain’s great leader in 1759, William Pitt explicitly stated that he thought the French sugar island of Guadeloupe was worth more than the whole of Canada and that the West Indies were worth more than North America: ‘The state of the existing trade in the conquests of North America is extremely low; the speculations of their future are precarious, and the prospect, at the very best, very remote.’ He had a point, even though a limited and unimaginative one – since even at the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 the value of British imports from Jamaica was five times greater than from all the American colonies. The island of Nevis on its own produced three times more British imports than New York in the years 1714–73, and Antigua three times more than New England. But trade between North America and the West Indies was equally important to the white plantocracy in the islands; whether we are talking of the Dutch in the seventeenth century or the British and French in the eighteenth, North America and the Caribbean had complementary economies, with each depending on the other. The French supplied the Antilles from Louisbourg and vice versa, and for the British the trade fulcrum was New York, which supplied the British West Indies with food and allowed the islands to devote more land to their cash crops. New York’s shipping took beef, lamb, pork, wheat, rye, corn, bread, butter, cheese, apples, peas, onions and pickled oysters to the islands and returned with sugar, molasses, hides, lumber and silver together with bills of exchange (credit notes) that enabled New York’s merchants to buy manufactured goods from Britain. New York also participated in the triangular slave trade, joining ships from Bristol and Liverpool on the West African coast, where they traded rum and manufactures for slaves to be sold in the West Indies.

The French slave trade was carried on from its Atlantic ports but by 1759 the position of the islands in the French Antilles was not nearly so favourable as its British-controlled counterparts in the Caribbean. The French Antilles trade concentrated on white sugar, indigo, cotton and coffee, with brown sugar very much a poor relation; but Martinique, the jewel of the French West Indies, suffered badly during the early period of the Seven Years War, both because of the British blockade (particularly effective in 1758 under Admiral Sir John Moore) and because of lack of shipping in which to export its crops. There was scant sympathy in Versailles for the plight of the Antilles. Navy Minister Machault told the islands in 1756 that Louis XV would not protect their ships by the old convoy system as he had better uses for His Majesty’s warships, but would simply station squadrons at landfalls, to protect the entry and departure of shipping. In 1759 Minister Berryer stopped payment on all colonial bills of exchange, thus drying up the credit of the Antilles. He recommended that the islands seek their salvation through neutral shipping; unlike his predecessors Maurepas, Machault and Moras, he thought that not enough neutrals were admitted to the islands; they had all thought too many were. There was considerable disillusionment in the French islands by early 1759 and William Pitt thought he saw an opportunity to capitalise on their lack of morale.

William Pitt, Prime Minister in all but name, was one of Britain’s greatest assets in the Seven Years War. Although his arrogance and aloofness could alienate even close friends (or at any rate those who thought themselves friends), as a politician he possessed a formidable arsenal of weapons. He was cynical and ruthless: the original ‘desiccated calculating machine’, he only ever did anything out of political considerations. He was the perfect Machiavellian, in that he understood that in politics one must ‘look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t’. He would never lift a finger to help even those supposedly close to him if it did not serve his political ends, but he was a great hand at feigning concern and pretending to help. He had many of the attributes of a natural actor, with an imposing physical presence and a powerful voice: his bell-throated oratory was said to have been second only to Danton in the entire eighteenth century. Always the most histrionic of statesmen, he gave himself theatrical airs, could pose and preen like the most hammy thespian and was even said to flash stage lightning from his eyes. His command of actorly gestures was complete, from the raised and supercilious eyebrow to the dismissive wave of the hand. He had the vanity and narcissism of the great actor-managers. But, like the famous French Marshal Villars, who boasted that he could fight the Duke of Marlborough to a standstill, was universally disbelieved, and then proved his point at the Battle of Malplaquet, Pitt was a man equal to his vainglorious posturings. ‘I am sure that I can save this country and that nobody else can,’ he bragged. His ingenious mind was essentially pragmatic; he was flexible and open to new suggestions and could think divergently. He could temper contempt with political know-how, as he proved in his notoriously difficult relations with George II and in his (on paper) implausible alliance with the Duke of Newcastle.

Aged 50 in 1759, Pitt had served in a previous administration as Paymaster-General, but his big break came at the outbreak of war in 1756 when he was appointed Secretary of State in a coalition government. Violent antipathy from George II forced his resignation in April 1757 but popular clamour led to his recall just two months later. George IPs dislike was a compound of three main factors. In the first place, Pitt favoured a war against France on the imperial periphery and was against continental entanglements, whereas for the monarch the defence of his beloved Hanover was always the priority. Second, Pitt felt dislike and contempt for George II’s favourite son, the Duke of Cumberland, and added insult to injury by favouring Prince Frederick (George IPs eldest son) and his coterie at Leicester House; the King, on the other hand, following the fashion of the Hanoverians, loathed Frederick, who returned the hatred with interest. Yet even George II had to endure the unendurable when reasons of state were involved, and it was clear to everyone that Pitt was indispensable to the war effort. To many contemporaries the political alliance with the Duke of Newcastle was the more amazing phenomenon. The sixty-six-year-old Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, was a veteran of more than thirty years with his hands on the levers of power. As an ally of the avatar of ‘Old Corruption’, Sir Robert Walpole, he had often been the target for Pitt’s acidulous tongue. But for all his manifold faults, his venality and mediocre intellect, Newcastle was, in his own way, a shrewd operator. He realised that Britain needed Pitt, so he swallowed the taunts, forgot the insults and allowed the go-between Lord Chesterfield to forge an alliance between himself and the ‘Great Commoner’.

Pitt’s common sense and flexibility emerge most clearly in this alliance with Newcastle, whom in his heart he must have despised. Newcastle was a pure machine politician, described by one historian as ‘ignorant of most things except the art of managing the House of Commons and careless of all things that could not help his party and himself. Congenitally timid, he lived in terror of personal unpleasantness and devoted much of his political skill to avoiding ‘scenes’, even if this meant ducking the issue. Essentially an amoral, cowardly, unprincipled, vacuous man, Newcastle was one of those people who was never nasty to anyone until he felt sure it was safe; sycophantic to the powerful and influential, he could be merciless to those who he was sure had no power, nor ever would have. His jerky physical movements, rapid and garbled speech, neurotic restlessness and air of always being in a hurry, his taste for hyperbole and impossible promises, were much commented on, parodied and burlesqued. Horace Walpole said of him: ‘A borrowed importance and real insignificance gave him the perpetual air of a solicitor . . . He had no pride, though infinite self-love. He loved business immoderately; yet was only always doing it, never did it. When left to himself, he always plunged into difficulties, and then shuddered for the consequences.’ An age that values political fixing over principle or ideology, such as our own, has seen unconvincing revisionist attempts to rehabilitate Newcastle, but it is difficult to argue with Parkman’s verdict that ‘a more preposterous figure than the Duke of Newcastle never stood at the head of a great nation’.

To Newcastle, America was a distant and unimportant blur on the map. The story is told that General Ligonier once suggested that Annapolis should be defended, to which Newcastle replied: ‘Annapolis, Annapolis! Oh, yes, Annapolis must be defended; to be sure. Annapolis should be defended, – where is Annapolis?’ According to Tobias Smollett, Newcastle was entirely ignorant of all geography, and Smollett reports the following ‘exchange’ in his novel Humphry Clinker.

Captain C treated the Duke’s character without any ceremony. ‘This wiseacre,’ said he ‘is still abed; and I think the best thing he can do is to sleep on till Christmas; for when he gets up he does nothing but expose his own folly. In the beginning of the war he told me in a great fright that thirty thousand French had marched from Acadia to Cape Breton. “Where did they find transports?” said I. “Transports!” cried he. “I tell you they marched by land.”

“By land to the island of Cape Breton!”

“What, is Cape Breton an island?” said the Duke.


“Ha. Are you sure of that?”

When I pointed it out in the map, he examined it earnestly with his spectacles; then, taking me in his arm, “My dear C – !” (cried he), “you always bring us good news – egad! I’ll go directly and tell the king that Cape Breton is an island!”’

But Newcastle admired Pitt’s willingness to shoulder responsibility and perform well under stress, and was content with a division of labour whereby Pitt occupied the public stage while he was the behind-the-scenes fixer: intriguing, bribing, cooking up shady political deals, dispensing patronage, places and pensions. Pitt, for his part, took the line that as long as he could appoint generals, admirals and ambassadors, Newcastle could have the rest. ‘I will borrow the Duke’s majorities to carry on the government,’ he declared. The two men drew closer together. While considering Pitt a child in financial matters, Newcastle gradually evolved into a stubborn defender of his old tormentor. He was happy with the title of First Lord of the Treasury while Pitt was Secretary of State. Pitt, on the other hand, came to appreciate Newcastle’s expertise in finance and patronage. It was, as the historian Francis Parkman remarked, ‘a partnership of magpie and eagle’.

Pitt’s power base was unusually secure for someone operating in a parliamentary rather than absolutist system. The key to his power was threefold. In the first place, the alliance with Newcastle made him impregnable in the House of Commons since Newcastle was the only man in Britain who could topple him and Newcastle refused to grant offices to Pitt’s opponents and critics. It was difficult even for an informal opposition to arise, for Pitt, with his track record of previous opposition to Newcastle and Walpole, could claim to be above party, a patriot who believed in wartime coalition rather than strife and faction. Pitt also neutralised the potential opposition among ‘country’ MPs by refusing to increase taxes on land and relying on the militia rather than regulars to defend the island against invasion, thus heading off the pressure for further revenue through taxation. The 1757 Militia Act, controversial though it was, was a clever piece of politics. As the cynical Horace Walpole pointed out, the country squires ‘by the silent douceurs of commissions in the Militia . . . were weaned from their opposition, without a sudden transition to ministerial employment’. Secondly, Pitt set himself to court and flatter George II and began laying it on with a trowel. He started by ruthlessly severing his contacts with Prince Frederick and Leicester House, to the fury of the Prince who regarded him as a backstabber. Pitt committed substantial subsidies and troops to the defence of the monarch’s beloved Hanover, while simultaneously (and paradoxically) enthusing the King about his grand scheme for the conquest of Canada. He even manipulated George so that Newcastle’s complaints about the multiplying costs of the war fell on deaf ears. Thirdly, because British institutions, and particularly the armed forces, had not yet become bureaucratised, a powerful individual could gather immense decision-making power to himself. Pitt took full advantage of the situation, working in small ad hoc committees with men he really trusted, like Admiral Lord Anson of the navy and Field Marshal Lord Ligonier in the army. Major military expeditions were despatched by Pitt after a lack of consultation that looks incredible to modern eyes; sometimes an entire army corps could be sent to a destination on what looked like no more than one man’s whim. The inevitable quid pro quo was a workload that even a titan like Pitt could not sustain indefinitely. One-man rule, even in a not quite modern state like eighteenth-century Britain, is an impossibility in the micro-managing sense.

Pitt’s versatility and adaptability meant that he often seemed to be able to square the circle. One of the oldest debates in English foreign policy in the eighteenth century was whether to make affairs in the wider world or overseas empire the priority or to concentrate on the balance of power in Europe. Pitt’s preference was overwhelmingly for defeating France in North America, India or wherever the two powers came into conflict. But he was nudged back towards Europe not just by George II’s obsession with Hanover but by the general military situation there. By late 1758 Frederick the Great had lost 100,000 fighting men to death, wounds, disease, desertion and capture and seemed close to collapse. Pitt showed solidarity in two ways. He sent more troops to Europe to ease the pressure on his ally, and he began a policy of ‘descents’ on the French coast, that is to say, landing armies in some strength on the western coast of France to harry, destroy and irritate coastal defences and generally to undermine the credibility of Louis XV’s war effort. But he failed to ride the two incompatible horses of the monarch and Prince Frederick. Pitt needed George II’s confidence, as even the favourite son Cumberland had learned to his cost when he was disgraced in 1757. Since Frederick and the Leicester House clique opposed making Hanover a cornerstone of foreign policy, Pitt was increasingly forced to choose between his old and new patrons. As a realpolitiker he chose the King, but his cold, callous and offhand reply to overtures from Leicester House angered Frederick and made him vow vengeance on the viperous ingrate he had previously nurtured.

By January 1759 William Pitt could derive some satisfaction from the shift in policy he had engineered the year before. The first plum to be plucked from the French orchard was in West Africa. A Quaker merchant from New York named Thomas Cumming suggested to Pitt that there were easy pickings to be had in Senegal and the Gambia, where the French guarded colossal wealth – in slaves, gold dust, ivory, silver and gum arabic – with minuscule military forces. The opportunistic Cumming offered to put his local expertise at the service of the British in return for a trade monopoly in Senegal. Pitt accepted and sent a nugatory force – two ships of the line and some 200 marines – to West Africa. The French commandant at Fort Louis on the Senegal river had evidently grown used to a sinecure, for when this tiny force appeared outside his walls he promptly surrendered. The resident traders swore allegiance to their new British masters and Cumming got his heart’s desire. When his ships duly returned to England laden with the promised spoils, Pitt woke up to the scale of what could be achieved on the African coast. He was particularly impressed by the 400 tons of gum Cumming brought back. Gum arabic, the sap of the acacia tree, was crucial in silk manufacture but hitherto British textile makers had had to buy it from the Dutch at premium rates. Equally impressive was the haul of slaves bound for the West Indies: the sugar planters there had been complaining for years about the shortage of slave labour. Euphoric at this African serendipity, Pitt sent out two more expeditions. One seized the French post of Fort St Michael on the island of Goree, and the other took over the slave-trading factory on the River Gambia.

Maybe it was the association of ideas between West African slavery and the sugar plantations, but Pitt’s next idea was to knock out French power in the West Indies as he had expunged it in West Africa. Once again the proximate ‘push’ for the exploit was a profit-hungry entrepreneur. William Beckford, MP, an absentee landlord of Jamaica and a crony of Pitt’s, wrote to his friend to point out the vulnerable position of the French on the island of Martinique: it was entirely dependent on French control of the sea lanes, could not support itself and its slaves without food convoys from France, but at the same time contained a body of slaves and stores of wealth worth more than £4 million (at least £200 million in today’s money). Arguing that Pitt would have a walkover victory every bit as easy as that in Senegal, Beckford concluded his exhortation with the words: ‘For God’s sake, attempt it without delay’ Yet Pitt was very aware that all analogies between West Africa and the West Indies were facile. The former could be acquired by opportunism, but the latter would need a formidable effort. His position was complicated by the need to further his true objectives – the expulsion of France from the Americas – while conciliating both Newcastle, who fretted about the costs of global warfare, and George II, who insisted on making Europe the primary theatre. To keep them happy Pitt had already given hostages to fortune by promising that the attacks on Goree and Senegal would be the only significant new overseas venture in late 1758.

Yet a host of other considerations tugged Pitt towards a campaign in the West Indies. At the most basic level, he was under pressure from a powerful coalition of economic and financial interests to take decisive action in the West Indies where competition with France for slaves, sugar and furs was intense. The ‘golden age’ for French sugar began at the end of the seventeenth century when French planters switched their endeavours to sugar cane and began to undersell the British West Indies in much the same way as the British had undersold the original sugar planters of Brazil. Slavery was another bone of contention. French competition in the 1750s had thrown the slave trade into crisis; until Pitt’s expeditions against West Africa, British planters in the Indies had experienced severe labour shortages, mainly occasioned by the odious fact that the life expectancy of black slaves in the plantations was no more than seven years. The French, by contrast, had made the West Indies a prime target for economic warfare. Not only did they subsidise their own slave trade but since the early 1700s they had controlled the beaver catch of the Hudson Bay, making them serious rivals in the hat trade. The French also had the edge in world fishery markets. The Treaty of Utrecht gave them the northern shores of Newfoundland as a base for curing and drying cod, while the British, confined to the more humid southern side, could not match the quality of cured cod and therefore suffered by comparison in the global fish trade.


View of the attack on Martinique showing the disposition of the troops and batteries of guns, from: Richard Gardiner. An account of the expedition to the West Indies, against Martinico: with the reduction of Guadelupe, and other the Leeward Islands, subject to the French King, 1759. Birmingham: printed by John Baskerville; London: for G Steidel, at the Crown and Bible, Maddox-Street, Hanover-Square.

Privateering and smuggling were also big issues in the West Indies. The principal reason that the French sugar islands showed more profit than the British ones was because of contraband between the French islands and British North America. The highly valued rum of Rhode Island was made from French molasses brought in clandestinely; in a word, the American colonists could smuggle in molasses more cheaply from the French West Indies than they could buy it from British sources on the open market. So, in addition to a cheaper labour supply and greater areas of fertile soil, the French had a ready market for their product in British North America, and this was vital to the economic life of the islands, since the French bought food and lumber with the contraband revenue. Molasses from the French West Indies was banned in France to protect native manufacturers of brandy, so without the North American market the island French would have been hard pressed, and could certainly not have basked in the reputation of being the richest and most prosperous colonies of any empire in the world. Faced with this situation, the British West Indies would have gone under but for the monopoly they enjoyed in Britain itself and the great expansion of the home market. But here was one of those ‘contradictions’ that would manifest itself immediately after the Seven Years War in the struggle between home country and North American colonists. In flat contradiction of mercantilism, the economic interests of Britain and her North American colonies were divergent. From the colonists’ point of view, the French supremacy in the islands was desirable. From the metropolitan point of view it was vital that the British colonies in the West Indies survived, since Jamaica alone bought more British manufactures than Virginia and Maryland combined.

Quite apart from the direct economic interests at stake in the islands, Pitt had to weigh two other, even more important, factors. First was the general military, naval and strategic implication of the West Indies, for his new bearing in foreign policy meant moving away from simple commerce protection and the destruction and harrying of enemy commerce towards an outright war of conquest. The general strategic position held by the British in the West Indies was unpromising, for the imperatives of geography favoured the French. At the beginning of the Seven Years War four nations shared the Caribbean islands. Spain possessed Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas and the eastern half of Hispaniola which they named Santo Domingo (the modern Dominican Republic). The Dutch Republic had Curaçao and shared the Virgin Islands with the British, who additionally had Jamaica, Barbados, St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat. France occupied the western half of Hispaniola (modern Haiti) and most of the other islands as far south as Grenada, including their cynosures of Martinique and Guadeloupe. There were in addition a number of officially neutral islands – St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) – which were in fact dominated by the French on Martinique.

The British islands were awkwardly distributed, with Jamaica far to the leeward of the rest and Barbados, the most windward island, with no harbour fit for a naval station. Since 1745 the Royal Navy had maintained two stations, one at Jamaica, the other in the Leeward Islands. The French, on the other hand, had their two bases in much more favourable strategic niches: one on the north coast of Santo Domingo dominating the windward passage into the Caribbean, and the other in Martinique. This strategic superiority was reinforced by trade routes. British merchant navy vessels, making for two widely separated landfalls, parted company before entering the Caribbean and were particularly vulnerable as they sailed into the waters to the windward of Barbados and Antigua respectively. French privateers preyed mercilessly on English shipping on both outward and homeward journeys and on vessels plying between the entrepots with a particular fondness for the Antigua passage. Martinique and Guadeloupe were notorious nests of privateers, the indented coastlines making them perfect for predatory raids. British small cruisers were not strong enough to attack these corsairs inland, as their headquarters were too far up the tropical ‘fjords’ for warships to reach them. The French meanwhile were relatively secure, since their islands all lay to the windward of the British base in each area. The Royal Navy’s task was particularly onerous since it additionally had to protect trade between the British West Indies and North America. Naval commanders tried to use the convoy system to counterattack the French threat, and employed a threefold seaborne strategy. Ships of the line watched the French bases at Santo Domingo and Martinique; the biggest warships patrolled the waters to the windward of Barbados and Antigua; and small cruisers and frigates concentrated on surveillance of the privateer nests, with particular emphasis on the Leeward Islands.

But over and above all these complex day-to-day dispositions, Pitt had to fit the West Indies into a mosaic of global strategy and geopolitics. In one sense the West Indies was a locus for convergent economic interests from outside, since the lumber trade of North America and the slave trade of West Africa both had their focus here. Overwhelmingly, fear was the spur for, although the British seemed on paper to be winning the struggle for the Orient – the British East India Company had factories from St Helena to Borneo – they were uneasy about increasing French encroachments and their burgeoning volume of trade. Fear sometimes became paranoia, with the British imagining that the French were trying to ‘encircle’ their North American colonies and the French apprehensive that the British would cut Canada off from the Louisiana territory and then conquer both separately. Each area of the world had its ‘boosters’, but Pitt considered the West Indies a more important theatre than India. The Royal Navy’s commitment was significant: in India the British deployed four ships of the line and three cruisers, but in the West Indies the respective figures were twelve and twenty. Both the objective interests and the sheer volume of trade in the Caribbean were so much greater than on the subcontinent. It was not surprising, then, that when Pitt felt strong enough for warfare on a truly global scale, he opened the second front in the West Indies, not in India.

Pitt had yet another motive for his proposed West Indian campaign. Eighteenth-century warfare was not guerre à outrance, nor would anyone have dreamed of modern war-fighting objectives like ‘unconditional surrender’. Newcastle constantly warned his colleague of the ruinous expense of his projects and advised that the time would come when the financiers of the City of London would no longer lend the government money. When that day arrived, the resulting crisis of credit would force any conceivable government to sue for peace terms. Pitt agreed that the enormous cost of the war alone meant that it would have to end at the earliest plausible moment, and his definition of a good peace was one where the French were driven from North America altogether and British supremacy in the Mediterranean maintained. So, although in 1759 Pitt aimed at a genuine war of conquest in the West Indies, which marked a new departure in the Caribbean, it was not intended as a war of permanent conquest, as the campaign in Canada was. At the peace table Pitt needed Martinique as a powerful bargaining counter, which he could exchange for Minorca. The obvious question then arises: if Minorca was so important, why did Pitt not send an expedition there instead? Here we see clearly the quality of his strategic thinking. In the first place, Minorca was a tougher nut to crack than Martinique and, in the second, he saw an ingenious way to kill two birds with one stone: to take out France’s equivalent of Jamaica and to achieve a conquest which the French would be glad to have back by giving up Minorca. Martinique, after all, was an island that exported 20,000 tons of sugar a year. And France would be desperate to get it back in order to reinforce the tenuous links between the St Lawrence and New Orleans, always assuming that Canada, or New France, was still in existence as a French territory.

Painstakingly Pitt explained his thinking to his inner Cabinet. Newcastle reiterated his opposition to widening the war on the periphery when the military situation in Europe was so parlous and British credit stretched almost to snapping point. It was bad enough that Britain was fighting both on the continent and in North America, but now Pitt was proposing warfare in the West Indies as well. Where would it all end? If Pitt was really serious about Martinique, economies would have to be made in other theatres and the obvious candidate for cutback was the series of ‘descents’ on the French coast, intended to take the pressure off Frederick of Prussia. But Pitt insisted that these attacks would have to go on, to cover the Martinique expedition; otherwise the French could mobilise resources to strike back in the West Indies.

Anson took Newcastle’s side and weighed in with the argument that the Martinique project was dangerously quixotic: too many ships would be absent in the West Indies if the French suddenly decided to launch an invasion of Britain. But Anson was never prepared to push really hard against Pitt once the Prime Minister had made up his mind, so the main opposition in September 1758 continued to come from Newcastle. Things reached the point where Pitt angrily threatened to recall all British troops from the continent if he could not have his way over Martinique. He was surely bluffing, for he could scarcely have made an enemy of George II and Newcastle at the same time. As a sop to Newcastle, he promised that, aside from the expedition to West Africa which had already been despatched, after Martinique there would be no more global adventures. Grudgingly Newcastle acquiesced, encouraged by the change of mind at the Admiralty. By early October Anson was telling Newcastle’s confidant Lord Hardwicke that he foresaw few barriers to a successful outcome in the West Indies. Anson thought the amphibious operation ingenious, and commented that the entire venture was singularly well thought through: there was a good beach for landing marines and failsafe plans were in place in case they had to retreat. Yet whatever opposition there was at the highest level, there was little in Parliament. In November the House of Commons approved a war budget of £13 million for 1759 – the largest wartime appropriation ever granted. Horace Walpole remarked, half-admiringly, half-acidulously: ‘You would as soon hear NO from an old maid as from the House of Commons.’

Pitt’s great West Indian expedition finally cleared from Portsmouth on 12 November 1758: 9,000 men and a handful of women sailed to Barbados in seventy-three ships commanded by General Peregrine Thomas Hopson, a favourite of George II, who liked the fact that the commander was an old man. With a quasi-senile prejudice against young men, George II deliberately chose this method of putting Pitt in his place for, as the gossip-monger Horace Walpole, homosexual son of Sir Robert, put it, the choice of the elderly and reluctant Hopson was ‘not consonant to Mr Pitt’s practice, who, considering that our ancient officers had grown old on a very small portion of experience, which by no means compensated for the decay of fire and vigour, chose to trust his plans to the alertness and hopes of younger men’. Pitt had to be content to see his choice as commander, John Barrington, occupying the second-in-command slot. It was difficult to find adequate officers for the lesser commands, as those who had purchased their commissions or obtained them through influence used their prerogatives to avoid service in dangerous, disease-ridden theatres like the West Indies. On the other hand, the high casualty rates in the Caribbean, especially from disease, meant that a career officer could take a calculated risk: entering as a Captain at the beginning of the year, he could be Colonel by the end of it.

Coffee-house opinion was divided on the wisdom of this venture, especially as it was widely known that half of the war budget was to be borrowed and that half the tax revenues would go in servicing the debt. Walpole, though, with his characteristic pessimism, vastly overrated the odds against success. ‘Martinico is the general notion; a place the strongest in the world with a garrison of ten thousand men. Others now talk of Guadeloupe, almost as strong and of much less consequence. Of both, everybody that knows, despairs.’ The truth was that the French had grown careless and the number of defenders was far, far less than Walpole’s hyperbolic estimate. Guadeloupe, in particular, was almost absurdly ill guarded, to the point where a modern historian has commented that this island in 1759 was ‘one of the few examples in history of a time when the best apple hung lowest on the bough’. Maybe the French had grown over-confident because of the sheer success of their privateering operations; of the 113 enemy ships seized by their corsairs in the West Indies in 1758, eighty-one were prizes taken either to Martinique or Guadeloupe.

The expedition made its way slowly across the Atlantic. The track of the fleet was south-west from Plymouth to latitude 13° north, then due west to Barbados, running before the trade winds. The ships were out of sight of land from the middle of November until they anchored in Carlisle Bay, near Bridgetown, Barbados on 3 January 1759. There were sixty-four transports, eight ships of the line, a frigate, four bomb-ketches and a hospital ship. The idea was that the four regiments and their naval backup would sail first to Barbados, where Commodore John Moore would take over the naval forces. The combined forces would next attack and take Martinique, which would then be garrisoned. But plans began to go awry almost immediately. The fleet suffered badly on the way over, not so much from storms but from disease: scurvy, dysentery, smallpox and ‘shipfever’. And because the fleet had to wait to allow stragglers to catch up – including the all-important hospital ship – it was impossible to take the French by surprise, even if they had not already been aware of what was about to descend on them. In fact Cardinal de Bernis, then acting as French Foreign Minister, knew the fleet’s destination before it had even left Portsmouth, and immediately informed the Marquise de Pompadour (whose creature he was). Captain Gardiner, who left the classic account of the 1759 expedition to the West Indies, produced this purple passage to describe landfall: ‘As the ships approached, the island rose gradually out of the sea with a delightful verdure, presenting a most inviting prospect of the country all around, which looked like a garden; the plantations were amazingly beautiful, interspersed at little distances from each other, and adorned with fruits of various colours.’

Moore assumed command of the naval squadron, and he and Hopson decreed ten days’ rest, revictualling and rewatering, giving the stragglers time to arrive. But by the time the united battalions left the Barbados rendezvous on 13 January, tropical disease had cut a swathe through the armada and the attack force had already been reduced by one-third to little more than 5,000 effectives. Yellow fever, smallpox and scurvy were the principal scourges. ‘Yellow jack’ was the most dreaded disease in the Caribbean. Borne by the Aedes mosquito, yellow fever had as its most common symptoms headache and agonising pain followed by the vomiting of large amounts of blood, made greasy and black by the action of the gastric juices. About half the fever’s victims vomited themselves to death within a few days; those who survived had immunity for life. Yellow fever had already made its presence felt among British invaders of the Caribbean, most notably during Admiral Vernon’s siege of Cartagena in 1741, when two-thirds of the British force besieging the town died of it. Smallpox, a bacteriological rather than insect-borne disease, also caused havoc. Symptoms were high temperatures, followed three days later by purulent blisters; the patient then either died or recovered, bearing disfiguring scars for the rest of his life. Scurvy was the usual effect of the notorious vitamin C deficiency in the diet of the Royal Navy before the late eighteenth century.

While profoundly worried by the growing sickness roster and especially the yellow-fever cases, the British commander pressed on. The attack on Martinique began on 13 January, but it soon transpired that the British had seriously underestimated the problems of a successful assault. The island was fringed with dangerous, rocky and rugged shores, where 300-foot cliffs often beetled almost perpendicularly from the sea. In the interior mountains reaching almost 5,000 feet in altitude, their lower slopes and foothills covered in thick, mosquito-infested rain forest, posed another formidable obstacle. On the western coast, where the British tried to land, there were thorn and cactus forests, alternating with mangrove swamps and salt grass. Moore decided to make his first assault on Fort Royale on the west of the island rather than on St Pierre farther up the coast. To take Fort Royale, an invader first had to silence the battery at Negro Point, and here the redcoated marines acquitted themselves well, even though they were taken aback by the defenders’ novel method of irregular warfare. The French and their mulatto soldiers hid in trees, bushes and cane plantations, often behind entrenchments not visible to the British, from which they directed heavy fire on an enemy that could not see them. When they retreated, and a party of British skirmishers advanced to ‘mop up’ in the bush, the defenders would then open a withering fire from the next of a series of defensive positions, compelling the skirmishers to retreat. Even Highlanders found the terrain – woods, mountains, ravines, sugar-cane plantations – difficult and particularly the steep approach to the mountain passes ‘interrupted by broken rocks and furrowed by a variety of gullies, which were extremely difficult to pass, and which rendered it very hazardous to make any attempt to force it’. These conditions badly affected morale. A British deserter later told a court martial that the reason he and his comrades quit was because they ‘saw no enemy to fight with, and yet bullets were flying about them from every leaf and bough they came near; that the country was afull of ambuscades and that, if they proceeded further, they must all be cut to pieces’.

Nevertheless, on 16 January, after a naval bombardment, the British swarmed ashore, took the fort, spiked the guns and destroyed all gunpowder. They then abandoned the fort and proceeded to land unopposed on the beach at Cas Navires. Pleased with results so far, Moore then changed his mind and decided to land a permanent garrison at Negro Point. On 17 January the French counterattacked. The garrison at Negro Point came under heavy fire, when British troops fanned out from the fort into the nearby woods, hoping to clear a distinctive track towards Fort Royale, French snipers and skirmishers started to take a heavy toll on them. In a foretaste of the conditions redcoats would face less than twenty years later in the American War of Independence, the British soon found themselves in a parlous state, unable to come to grips with an elusive enemy, dropping in their tracks from heat, fatigue and shortage of water.

Hopson began to surmise that Fort Royale might conceivably hold out for ten days or more, during which time his own troops well might melt away, even if they did manage to build a road to the French citadel. Only five miles separated the British beachhead from the fort, but the intervening country was a morass of woods, canes and ravines. The last straw was when Hopson’s engineers reported that, to bring the citadel within cannon range, they would have to cross a ravine. But how was that possible, Hopson asked. Only by making a further five-mile diversion, the engineers replied. Hopson’s calculations quickly showed him that the manpower needed to portage thirty cannon, plus cannon balls, mortar and stores, far exceeded his own labour force. The clincher was that there was no water on the route either. This meant that to build a credible road to the fort so that his heavy artillery could be deployed, Hopson would need 1,000 pioneers for road building and another 1,000 as water carriers. He was in a position remarkably similar to the one General John Burgoyne would confront at Saratoga in 1777: short of water while being unable to deploy his big guns. Not surprisingly, Hopson concluded that this was mission impossible. He ordered an evacuation, having taken losses of twenty-two dead and forty-eight wounded.

But Hopson was still unwilling to admit overall defeat on Martinique, so he decided to probe at St Pierre instead, even though this lacked the strategic significance of Fort Royale. On 19 January the British fleet appeared off the commercial capital, which was built in a crescent along the bay with the volcanic Mount Pelée (which would erupt so devastatingly on 8 May 1902) as the dramatic backdrop. HMS Rippon began shelling the town but St Pierre’s batteries made a vigorous riposte. After exchanging fire for four and a half hours, the Rippon was the worse for wear and in imminent danger of being sunk. Moore withdrew her to safety and hastily conferred with Hopson. Both men were by now pessimistic about the military possibilities on Martinique. Moore repeated his earlier opinion that there was no strategic advantage in taking the town, while Hopson concluded that he could not maintain a garrison there, as it would have to be continually supplied by sea. They were not to know that French morale was low and their resolve signally lacking; and, in general, the British commanders overrated the problems of Martinique, which was captured easily three years later by a British combined operation. What they should have done was what was done in 1762: make a number of feints on the island before delivering the main attack, thus sapping the defenders’ fighting spirit still further; the militia’s initial enthusiasm would soon drain away and, even if he spotted the feint, the French commander would have to disperse his forces against his better judgement to still the laments and clamours of the planters.

Official opinion privately (there was no public censure) blamed Hopson for the debacle at Martinique and absolved Moore, though the Admiralty was simply rewarding him for his fawning attitude over the Byng affair two years earlier, when Admiral John Byng had been shot for neglect of duty after failing ignominiously to relieve Minorca. Perceptive critics outside the establishment saw that Moore was as much to blame as Hopson. Neither man acquitted himself well, but the bizarre events of the early years of the Seven Years War in a sense contrived to let them off the hook. Not to press an attack with full vigour was inevitably to invite comparison with Admiral Byng at Minorca, who had been shot, as Voltaire said, ‘to encourage the others’. But, on the other hand, both Moore and Hopson alleged that to tangle with the guerrillas, snipers and sharpshooters in the ravines outside Fort Royale was to invite Braddock’s fate at Monongahela. Fortunately for them, it was this version of events that was endorsed by the power elite in London.

Hopson and Moore also escaped censure by pressing on to Pitt’s secondary target of Guadeloupe, separated from Martinique by the officially neutral (but really pro-French) island of Dominica. Guadeloupe had many advantages for the British marauders. It was the chief producer of sugar and molasses; it produced more cotton and coffee than any other island in the West Indies except Jamaica; its trade was more valuable than Canada’s; it was a nest of privateers who preyed on British shipping; once taken it would be an invaluable base, enabling the Royal Navy to guard shipping and dominate the Leeward Islands; it was scantily defended, with a population of just 2,000 Europeans and 30,000 blacks; and in short its loss would be an utter disaster for France. But Guadeloupe also had many disadvantages. The heat and humidity were terrific, with temperatures never below 70°F and more usually above 900; malaria and dysentery were frequent in the low-lying areas (below 1,500 feet in altitude); and it would have to be conquered before the hurricane season in July–October. Additionally, Guadeloupe was really two islands in one. There was the volcanic, so-called Basse Terre and, separated from it by a sea arm, the limestone Grande Terre, with an indented coastline full of small inlets and river mouths, the haunts of privateers. The British campaign was therefore planned as a threefold operation: first, destroying resistance on the leeward side of Basse Terre; secondly, crushing the enemy on Grande Terre; and finally the conquest of the windward side of Basse Terre.

The bombardment of the town and citadel of Basse Terre began on 22 January. The Royal Navy had perfected bomb-ketches – sturdy fore-and-aft vessels built with heavier frames and beams – for use against shore installations. Each one contained at least one mortar, which could throw a bomb on a high parabolic trajectory for a distance of two to three miles. Normal bombs were like shells, spherical in shape and packed with powder, with the wall of the shell given an extra thickness so that the bomb would not fall to earth with the fuse on the downward side. British gunners were supposed to cut the wax and gunpowder fuses in such a way that the bomb exploded on contact with the ground or some other object, but eighteenth-century bomb-making was an inexact science and many bombs exploded in the air. A refinement of the ordinary bomb was the carcass, like a shell but incendiary rather than explosive. Used both to gut buildings and as a flare to guide night artillery fire, it was often packed with charged pistol barrels of various lengths, which fired intermittently and irregularly, so that even experienced members of bomb squads approached them with caution. The best ordnance evidence from 1759 suggests that the carcasses in use during the West Indies campaign were loaded with a mixture of wax, sulphur, nitre and gunpowder, making them inextinguishable by water.

Even with the help of these formidable weapons, the British at first experienced tough going. The numbers of shore batteries initially made the spirits of the attackers quail, and the British chief of engineers gloomily declared the place impregnable. Moore persisted and ordered a day-long fusillade from his warships. Finally the French batteries were silenced but by this time darkness was falling and Moore postponed the amphibious landing to the next day. At 10 p.m. that night, the British bomb vessels began lobbing carcasses into the town – whether through simple boredom or to keep the enemy guessing appears uncertain. At any rate the wooden houses and laden warehouses were soon ablaze and both citadel and town gutted. Vast amounts of sugar, rum, tar and other produce were needlessly destroyed in a peculiarly mindless act of vandalism. Although Moore later assured Pitt that the inferno was an accident, the fact is that the bombing continued all night. The terrified enemy fled to the hills from the scenes of a Hieronymus Bosch horror, even abandoning the wounded in their panic, and a good general would have capitalised on their confusion and demoralisation. But Hopson had his men stood to all night, fearing a French counterattack or some underhand ruse. In the morning he counted the cost. He had lost seventeen killed and thirty wounded; the Royal Navy ships had been badly damaged in their rigging and because of the fire no loot or significant prizes had been taken. Worst of all, Hopson now decided to dig in and retrench, condemning his men to idleness, inactivity or deadening boredom while labouring on the citadel’s fortifications.

The result was what all old West India hands would have expected. Disease cut a swathe through the army and by 30 January 1,500 men were on sick parade. Mosquitoes, untreated sewage, contaminated water, back-breaking toil in the heat, incompetent surgeons and poor diet all played their part. By early February Hopson was down to just 2,796 men fit for duty. By mid-February eight transports cleared for Antigua bearing 600 of the most seriously ill, the majority of whom died during the passage or soon after arrival. Hopson sent out companies of redcoats to scour the countryside, but the French, adopting guerrilla warfare, easily evaded them and began to harry them with hit-and-run attacks. Every day snipers and sharpshooters became more of a menace and on 30 January a French guerrilla group, hidden in lofty sugar cane, showed its mettle by ambushing and killing four sailors. Emboldened by this success, the French became over-confident and sustained a bad check on i February, when thirty prisoners fell into British hands. Skirmish and counter-skirmish continued but there was no decisive breakthrough. Secretly champing at the bit over Hopson’s incompetence, Moore tried to fight his own war by sending his cruisers out to blockade the entire island and prevent food reaching the guerrillas. His mood grew blacker by the day as the army continued to be decimated by disease.


The campaign of Guadeloupe and Martinique, January–May 1759

During this period of ‘phoney war’ there was one notable success. To sever all communications between Basse Terre and Grande Terre and so prevent any aid from reaching the guerrillas, the English had to capture Fort Louis. By begging a few companies of Highlanders from Hopson to add to his own marines, Moore thought he had the strength to do it. On 6 February the commandos set sail and on the 13th the military action began. For six hours Moore’s task force bombarded Fort Louis and took out both the shore batteries and the four-gun redoubts on each of the nearby hills. Initially all went to plan, and the Highlanders and the marines of the landing party were happy to watch while the two ships of the line blew the fort apart. But once the assault party clambered into the flat-bottomed landing craft – each carrying sixty-three men, rowed with twelve oars and drawing no more than two feet of water – the barrage was lifted for fear of hitting the invaders with ‘friendly fire’. Whereupon hundreds of French troops reoccupied the battered positions and opened such a heavy fire that the Colonel of marines ordered the boats to retreat.

This led to one of those bad-tempered scenes that should act as a cautionary tale for triumphalist theorists of combined operations. As the flat-bottoms returned alongside HMS Berwick, the irascible commodore Captain William Harman shouted: ‘Don’t give the damned cowardly felloes a rope.’

Enraged, Captain William Murray of the Highlanders stood up and yelled back: ‘Captain Harman, we are under command and were forced to obey, but rest assured that you shall answer to me for the expression you have used.’ Not fancying a duel with a claymore-wielding Highlander, Harman blustered that he was not referring to the Highlanders but to the marines. Yet Murray was so indignant that he ordered his boats to put about for the shore; the marines were then shamed into following him. As Fort Louis suddenly seemed to burst into spontaneous combustion – actually the pent-up impact of yet more deadly carcasses – the Highlanders and the English marines waded ashore under cover of the thick pall of smoke. They too had been pent up – cramped in readiness for five hours in the longboats – but now they surged through the foam with gusto, making for the sandy strand.

There were some nasty moments when they hit the booby-trapped shoreline – for the French had driven pilings into the seabed and interlaced them with mangroves, which acted as a home for the dreaded Anopheles mosquito; there was therefore a chance of malaria at the very moment of securing a beachhead. But finally the beachhead was secured and the marines and the Highlanders, who could have been deadly enemies just thirteen years earlier in the last Jacobite rising, came boiling out of the foam like sea monsters. To their consternation, French veterans and black irregulars heard the dreaded cry ‘Claymore’, as the Highlanders were on them in a trice with broadsword and bayonet. Lieutenant Grant of the Black Watch, who ached to be a hero, came a spectacular cropper. ‘Getting out of the boat, I stumbled over a stone and fell forward into the water. My servant, thinking me mortally wounded, seized me and was dragging me on shore, in doing so he scraped my shins against the grapwall. We all rushed on pell-mell, and the French ran like hares up the hill at the back of the battery.’ Not without some deaths among the landing party by dusk the deed was done and Basse Terre could no longer be reinforced from the other side of the island. But it had been a grim affair, with terrible wounds inflicted. The British did not open fire with their muskets until the French were ten yards away, at which range the volley was devastating and murderous. All in all, it had been a close-run thing. As Grant rightly remarked of amphibious operations: ‘Of all species of warfare that of landing is the most unpleasant


you present a mark for your enemy and you are not in your element.’

Yet as long as the ailing Hopson lived, and more and more men went down to tropical disease, stalemate was still the most likely long-term result. Again Moore chafed and fretted at the lack of action. But at last, on 27 February, his prayers were answered when the despised Hopson succumbed to fever. His replacement, General Barrington, whom Pitt had originally wanted to command the expedition, proved as energetic as Hopson had been listless, although from the first day of his command he had a mountain to climb. Moore and Barrington, who enjoyed an amazing unanimity on the way forward, agreed that the next step was to transfer the bulk of the force to Fort Louis, leaving just a garrison of 500 to oversee Basse Terre. Leaving behind one battalion and transferring the worst of the sick cases to Antigua, the commanders effected the move on 11 March, after having been at sea for a full four days, beating up against the trade winds. To mask their departure from Basse Terre they used a ruse worthy of Greek mythology, for Barrington ordered tents struck and huts built as though they were settling in for a long stay. They were now in a race against time in a double sense: they had to complete the conquest of Guadeloupe before the hurricane season and while they still had a credible army. Tropical disease seemed to become more virulent every day, so that by the time they landed at Fort Louis, their effectives numbered no more than 1,500.

Scarcely had the British landed at Fort Louis than they received a piece of dramatically bad news. Despite the urgings of many of the ministers on Louis XV’s Council, who despaired of ever making inroads against British seapower and wanted to concentrate on the war in Europe, the King had sent Admiral Maximin de Bompart to the Leeward Islands with a powerful counterattacking task force, comprising eight ships of the line, three frigates and a battalion of Swiss and other troops. Even though the British enjoyed the incontestable advantages of naval dockyards in the West Indies and being provisioned from North America, Versailles was determined that Martinique would not be abandoned without a fight – the ministers were of course unaware that the British had now switched operations to Guadeloupe. Moore and Barrington were placed in a peculiarly difficult position by this new development. With the hurricane season approaching, Moore would soon have to detach some of his warships for convoy duties and the protection of the homeward merchant fleet. Even worse, when Barrington opened Pitt’s sealed instructions to Hopson, he read that Pitt ordered the Highlanders to be sent to North America once the Martinique operation was complete. If he stuck to the letter of the orders, Barrington would leave himself far too weak to maintain himself against Bompart’s incursions.

Yet another of the numerous councils of war that beset this West Indies expedition was convened. The idea of taking the offensive and blockading Bompart in Martinique was ruled out, on the grounds of supply and communication lines; for a start, there could be no search-and-destroy mission against the French armada without an adequate water supply, which not even the troops at Fort Louis had. Instead the commanders hit on the idea of concentrating the British fleet at Prince Rupert’s Bay in the north of the neutral island of Dominica so that it could intercept any French move against Fort Louis. Meanwhile Barrington, aware that he was vulnerable at Fort Louis to possible French attacks from a number of directions, opted for the strategy of offence as the best means of defence. He reasoned that the enemy could never unite for a push against Fort Louis if he kept them disunited by striking at several points at the same time; accordingly in the third week of March he sent 600 men to attack the towns of Le Gosier, Ste Anne and St François simultaneously. The strategy was a brilliant success and the thrust against Le Gosier even produced an unexpected bonus when the jubilant attackers pressed on and took in the rear a French force moving against Fort Louis. Barrington followed this up with a brilliantly executed war of movement, continually harrying the French, forever appearing in their rear when they were expected in the van, continually switching the angle of attack and the military objective. The French became more and more demoralised, and desertions from the militia reached record levels.

By the beginning of April Barrington was satisfied that he had completed the first two phases of his campaign. He had wiped out resistance on the leeward side of Basse Terre and had crushed the defenders on Grande Terre even more effectively. There remained the windward side of Basse Terre, the most populous area and the region where all the richest plantations were located. Barrington had done the difficult parts first, for this final phase favoured conventional forces more than the other two phases. A gently rising coastal plain extended from one to three miles to the foothills of the mountains, and on this fertile paradise between the sea and the peaks lay a series of wealthy sugar plantations that probably generated more wealth per acre than any other terrain in the world in 1759. On 12 April the British disembarked some 1,450 men at Arnouville. A hard-fought action followed, with British artillerymen and the Highlanders particularly distinguishing themselves. They won the day but left fourteen of their men dead on the field and carried off fifty-four wounded. The French retreated only slightly before digging in again. They proved doughty defenders, pegging the British back to an advance of just two miles a day. Yet in the end the combat between regulars and militiamen in open terrain could have only one ending. On 21 April the brave but demoralised defenders finally surrendered. The formal capitulation was signed on 1 May, allowing for an immediate exchange of prisoners.

Incredibly, the very next day (within hours of the capitulation according to some melodramatic reports) Bompart suddenly landed at Ste Anne, now no more than a burnt-out shell after its recent destruction. He arrived from Martinique with his fleet, 600 Swiss regulars, spare arms and ammunition for another 2,000 fighters and a large force of irregulars, described in some reports as ‘2,000 buccaneers’. Whether these militiamen and volunteers quite numbered 2,000 or in any way merited the bloodthirsty (and at this date somewhat anachronistic) description of buccaneers is doubtful, but the fact remains that they made up a formidable fighting force. Learning of the capitulation and the prisoner cartel, Bompart apparently tried to persuade the French Governor of Guadeloupe, Nadau du Treil, to find some technicality for reneging on the deal, but du Treil refused. Bompart accepted the inevitable and sailed back to Martinique. Learning of his arrival to the east, Moore tried to get his ships under way to bring Bompart to a decisive action, but the winds were against him and he spent five frustrating days trying to reach the island of Marie Galante. But not even a Nelson could make easting against the trade winds, and in fifty-seven hours Moore’s ships managed to beat eastward just six miles. What had happened? How was Bompart able to sail from Martinique to Guadeloupe and back again without being intercepted? Moore’s main mistake was to base himself at Rupert’s Bay in Dominica. His critics said he should have sailed for Martinique and attacked Bompart at Fort Royale, but Moore knew the strength of the defences there and did not want to tangle with an enemy fleet and shore batteries. That decision was sound enough, but basing himself at Rupert’s Bay meant that Moore lost contact with the French. The usual view is that he should have positioned himself to windward of the enemy and within sight, ready to pursue wherever Bompart went. But Moore thought he had all the options covered. He expected Bompart either to attack Basse Terre and Fort Louis or to proceed to Jamaica. Nobody on the British side had considered the possibility that the French might land on the windward side of Grande Terre. So it was that Moore failed to intercept Bompart both on the outward and return journey between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Moore had got to the windward of the enemy’s putative objective but not of the enemy himself. His later protestations were of the same kind as those of the punter who complains that the favourite in a horse race did not win: reason, logic and the form book did not prevail. Bompart defied all normal expectations by passing round the southern end of Martinique instead of coming inside the islands.

The British had won the battle for Guadeloupe, but it had been touch and go. If the French commanders had cooperated better and shown more energy, the British would have been defeated. If Bompart had arrived just a day earlier, the balance of forces would have shifted irremediably in the French favour. Barrington admitted that he was at the limit of his resources and could not have fought much longer. He told Pitt that disease was making such inroads on the expeditionary force that he would soon not have a credible fighting body and he therefore dreaded the consequences. Aware that he could be criticised for having agreed to very lenient terms of capitulation, he wrote to the Prime Minister on 9 May: ‘I hope you will approve of the arrangements for I can assure you that by force alone I could not have made myself master of these islands nor even of maintaining a garrison at Fort Louis, which I would have had to blow up after withdrawing the garrison . . . [whatever troops I left behind] would have succumbed as soon as my army departed.’ Whatever criticisms can be made of Moore, Barrington emerges with a clean sheet from the Guadeloupe campaign. He has been criticised, anachronistically, for not fighting a war of attrition instead of accepting a negotiated surrender. But it is simply a fact that eighteenth-century armies aimed at victory but not annihilation, and still less at unconditional surrender. Moreover, if Hopson had simply accepted a truce and allowed experienced negotiators time to arrive, Bompart’s force would have reinforced the defenders and ultimately defeated him.

Meanwhile new orders arrived from London. Pitt, having learned about the switch from Martinique to Guadeloupe, ordered Barrington to take the island of St Lucia and to that end rescinded his previous orders about sending the Highlanders to Louisbourg. Barrington, though, did not have nearly enough manpower for the conquest of St Lucia. He sent the Highland regiments to Louisbourg, having first conducted a face-saving exercise by conquering the small islands in the Guadeloupe group – Marie Galante, Deseada, The Saints, Petit Terre. On 25 July he sailed for home with three battalions.

Moore moved on to Antigua to protect merchant navy commerce, which had been preyed on incessantly by the privateers once they saw the Royal Navy preoccupied with Bompart. Moore was not able to make any further contact with his French rival, but sailed for home with a huge convoy of 300 merchantmen in September. He took with him a blackened reputation. Not only was he in bad odour for failing to search and destroy Bompart but, as the Barbados authorities complained bitterly to London, he had failed to protect their commerce, as the facts proved: the privateers had taken ninety British ships between January and July. Moore’s defence was twofold. Dealing with the privateers was a Herculean labour against the hydra’s heads, as the terms negotiated required a simple exchange of prisoners; since the corsairs had to be released as soon as they were caught, they simply went back to their piratical activities. As for his unpopularity in Barbados, this was because Moore had tried to find out who was running the illegal but highly profitable slave trade between Barbados and St Vincent as well as the commerce in foodstuffs to the neutral islands which the French had occupied.

The armed forces of George II had learned a lot from their tropical campaign in the West Indies. Richard Gardiner of the marines testified that the Martinique and Guadeloupe campaigning was particularly arduous. The troops were ‘exposed to dangers they had never known, to disorders they had never felt, to a climate more fatal than the enemy, and to a method of fighting they had never seen’. If by the end of the campaign they knew nothing about fighting irregulars in the bush, they also had no answer to the ravages of yellow fever and other diseases. From Barrington’s departure after the conquest of Guadeloupe in June to October 1759 eight officers and 577 men had succumbed to disease while performing nothing more strenuous than garrison duty. In such a context admirers of the landscape were rare, yet George Durant, one of the British officers, contributed to the growing cult of the picturesque, finding the island ‘prospects both noble and romantic . . . hills whose tops reached the clouds, covered with stately woods of ten thousand different shades of green’.

Yet in the short term the many critics of Moore took a back seat, while euphoria in London at the conquest of Guadeloupe was given free rein. Newcastle was in full burbling mood, writing to the Admiralty of ‘great good news . . . I want something to revive my spirits and this has done it . . . must be great in its consequences . . . hope will refresh our stocks . . . great affair.’ Pitt remarked more sparingly: ‘Louisbourgh and Guadeloupe are the best plenipos at a Congress.’ The news was particularly welcome as Pitt’s government had been under great strain through financial crisis. Ministers could not agree which taxes should be earmarked to finance the massive debt voted so facilely by Parliament the previous autumn; and the kingdom was seriously short of specie, since gold and silver coins had been exported in large numbers to maintain the war in Germany and North America. Financial confidence was shaken and government bonds began selling at the steepest discounts since the Glorious Revolution. The conquest of Guadeloupe proved a massive shot in the arm, even though London was at first slow to appreciate the wealth of the sugar islands. The 350 plantation owners of Guadeloupe and Marie Galante began shipping their sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton and other products to Britain in return for much-needed slaves and manufactured goods. Within a year of the conquest, from 1759 to mid-1760, Guadeloupe sent 10,000 tons of sugar, valued at £425,000, to Britain and imported 5,000 slaves plus wrought iron and other manufactures. Guadeloupe also supplied Massachusetts rum distillers with half the molasses they needed – three times the volume exported from Jamaica.

If Britain achieved the serendipity of riches gained while pursuing what were primarily military ends, France by contrast was sunk in the deepest gloom by the news from the West Indies. Marshal Belle-Isle at the War Office confessed himself devastated by the loss of Guadeloupe. The French took the setback hard and went looking for scapegoats. They fastened on the Governor of Guadeloupe, Nadau du Treil, whom they blamed for signing the articles of capitulation to Barrington. Du Treil received a sentence of life imprisonment. But the real culprit, François, Marquis de Beauharnois, Governor of Martinique, who took three months to decide to help Guadeloupe, even though the island was just a few hours’ sail away, escaped serious censure on the grounds that he had repelled an attempted British invasion of his island. The French position in the West Indies was bedevilled by a number of factors, principally the lack of inter-island cooperation and the militia system. Because of the class system on the islands (out of Guadeloupe’s population of 50,000 more than 80 per cent were black slaves), most of the Frenchmen were grandees of one sort or another, who would not take orders willingly; it was a classic case of too many chiefs and not enough French West Indians. And the different islands failed to cooperate with each other largely because militiamen and their native levies would not serve ‘abroad’ – that is, away from their own islands.

Bompart, who eventually returned to France in November and slipped through a British naval blockade to reach Brest, is a good source for the endemic French weaknesses. Two weeks after anchoring in Fort Royale, on 20 March, he wrote to the Navy Minister Berryer as follows: ‘I have found everything chaotic and disorganised, the people terrified, order and hierarchy virtually annihilated . . . I have not been consulted or warned about conditions here and the governor lets everything go to pot and does nothing.’ Two months later, after the capitulation, Bompart was even more acidulous, wrote despairingly of the loss of French prestige and spoke of the way the neutral islands were going over wholesale to the British side. A letter to Berryer on 22 May contains the following: ‘Dominica is now removed from the orbit of His Most Christian Majesty and has signed a pact of neutrality (i.e. friendship) with the British. The French on that island sell our enemies their best produce . . . Guadeloupe’s favourable economic position now under the British is making people in Martinique think . . . Grenada now has a glut of sugar and the French West Indies are now in economic crisis, since exports to Canada and Louisbourg have ceased.’ Now the only outlet for French sugar and coffee was France itself, with whom the islands had secure communications only in neutral Danish or Dutch shipping. And even the neutral flag did not protect such shipping against British privateers. Needless to say, British tribunals invariably declared such captures lawful prizes.

The letter to Berryer is worth following up, for it expresses the fundamental truth that Guadeloupe did very well out of the four-year British occupation from 1759 to 1763. The planters in the islands of the British West Indies wanted and expected draconian treatment of the conquered Antilles isles and required as an absolute minimum some of the following: expulsions, high taxation, oaths of allegiance, land expropriation, a ban on the production of sugar, cocoa and coffee. Yet almost the reverse happened. In the four years of their occupation, the British developed Pointe-à-Pitre as a major harbour, opened English and North American markets to Guadeloupean sugar and allowed the planters to import cheap American lumber and food. After being boosted by imports, Guadeloupe overtook Martinique’s slave population, and until 1763 half of all French slave carriers had Martinique and Guadeloupe as their destination (the other main ones being Guyana and Grenada). To general stupefaction in the islands, the French planters were not expelled. How was this possible? The main reason was that Moore and Barrington allowed exceptionally generous terms at the surrender, which in turn reflected uncertainty in London as to whether Guadeloupe was to be taken over as a permanent conquest or simply subject to temporary occupation.

In the articles of capitulation, Moore and Barrington allowed the Guadeloupeans to be neutral, to have complete religious freedom and security for both church and lay property, to enjoy their old laws, to pay no more duties than at present and, if Guadeloupe was retained after the peace, to pay no more than 4.5 per cent taxes on exports (the lowest rate in the Leeward Islands) – in effect granting the island most-favoured-nation status; moreover the people would not have to provide barracks for the British army or supply forced labour – all labour would be paid for and blacks employed only with the consent of their masters. This last was a remarkable concession, as it put Guadeloupe planters ahead of any other slave-owners in the West Indies, whether British or French. As an added bonus, it was agreed that anyone free of debt could leave at once for Martinique and/or send their children to be educated in France. The most remarkable concession of all was Article Eleven of the capitulation which promised that, until peace came, no British subject could acquire land in Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe’s position improved almost magically once removed from the domination of Martinique. American merchants supplied all the goods of which the island had hitherto been starved. The only problems remaining for the French planters were how to export coffee to England and how to import wine from France, and they solved these easily by smuggling. Slave merchants did particularly well, and there were 7,500 more black slaves on Guadeloupe in February 1762 than there had been in 1759. In the general atmosphere of bonanza the British authorities had one overriding problem: tightening up the nexus that bound debtors and creditors. Under the lax pre-1759 laws, creditors had rarely been paid, and the British feared that if they advanced credit to the planters and Guadeloupe was returned to France as part of a general peace, they would not get their money back. Indeed, certain shrewd operators in the French mercantile community had worked out that, having escaped their French creditors when the British took over, they might in turn escape their British ones once peace came, and thus complete a double-whammy of debt evasion.

Soon the prosperity and special concessions made to Guadeloupe led to jealousy and bitterness in the other islands of the West Indies, both British and French. Barbados began to complain that market prices had increased because of the huge demand in Guadeloupe, while in London absentee West Indies planters were angry at plummeting prices when Guadeloupe sugar starting flooding the market in 1760. Martinique was deeply resentful of the favourable deal obtained by its fellow countrymen in Guadeloupe, and this may have been a factor in the speedy surrender of Martinique to the British in 1762. Martinique, however, managed to live on the proceeds of privateering in the three years between the first and second British attack, partly because its own corsairs were more successful after 1759 than previously and partly because British privateers, discouraged by a recent decision in the Court of Prize Appeals in England, largely ceased their depredations; moreover, the Royal Navy blockaders spread themselves too thinly among the islands. Besides, Versailles belatedly decided to do something for the Antilles and, as a reward for repelling the British, Martinique was opened to neutral shipping after February 1759; no special trading licence was required and the normal fee of 3,000 livres was waived. For all these reasons Martinique was able, if not quite to hold its own against Guadeloupe, at least to enjoy, paradoxically, greater prosperity after 1759 than before.

The West Indian campaign was an unusual venture in eighteenth-century terms, when amphibious operations were rare. Anachronism is the enemy of history and 1759 can be understood only if we realise how far the mentality of warriors of that time was from the twentieth-century sensibility, inured to combined land and sea assaults like those in Operation TORCH in North Africa in 1942, the assault on Sicily in 1943, the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944, to say nothing of an entire chapter of seaborne invasions in the Pacific War (in the Gilberts, Marshalls, New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa). Nonetheless, all the elements of modern combined operations were there in primitive form in 1759: naval bombardments, flat-bottomed naval craft, perilous landings in the teeth of underwater obstacles, beachheads secured only at great cost in human life.

Although Pitt’s conception of Guadeloupe as a trading counter for Minorca inspired the enterprise, when peace negotiations to end the Seven Years War began in 1762, the British proved remarkably reluctant to give up their acquisitions in the French West Indies. There was a powerful lobby that wanted to hang on to Guadeloupe and was even prepared to return Canada to France if that could be accomplished. The Canada-versus-Guadeloupe debate became one of history’s most famous controversies. There are even those who argue that if Britain had retained Guadeloupe and returned Canada to France, the impossibility of an independent United States would have been doubly determined, both by the French presence in North America and by the absence of the French seapower in the Caribbean that ultimately made Yorktown in 1781 possible. 1759 changed world history in more ways than one.

1759 – British expedition against Martinique and Guadeloupe

What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part I

The Challenge

On 15 June 1888, the twenty-year-old Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned emperor of Germany. Although capable of moments of brilliant insight, Wilhelm II was infamous for his obnoxious arrogance, uncontrollable temper and erratic decision making. Intensely Anglophobic, he despised the British Empire and felt that Germany was being denied ‘a place in the sun’ by a conspiracy of British and French interests. Wilhelm II was determined to redress this balance.

Germany began to build its colonial empire in the 1890s using a handful of warships, but Wilhelm II dreamed of creating a fleet that would one day topple the Royal Navy itself. In 1897 he appointed Konteradmiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz shared Wilhelm II’s naval ambitions and had the political skill to steer the proposals through the Reichstag. Within a year, Germany had passed the First Naval Bill, which called for the construction of nineteen battleships by 1904. In 1900, Tirpitz used the pretext of strained Anglo-German relations as a result of the Boer War to increase the provision of battleships to thirty-eight vessels.

The gauntlet had been thrown down to Britain. For almost a century the Royal Navy had been the undisputed master of the oceans. Lord Horatio Nelson’s legendary victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 had established such an overwhelming sense of British naval superiority that no other major power had dared to challenge it – until now.

The British government quickly perceived that German naval building was not merely a danger to the empire, but, by virtue of Germany’s geographic position, represented a grave threat to Britain itself. The Royal Navy responded to German construction in kind. The first great arms race of the twentieth century had begun.

In 1906 the Royal Navy changed the terms of the contest with the launch of the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought. This vessel was faster, better armoured and more heavily armed than any ship then afloat. Dreadnought was so advanced compared to her rivals that from that point on battleships would be classed either as modern dreadnoughts or outdated pre-dreadnoughts.

Some strategists in Britain hoped that the launch of Dreadnought would convince the Germans that they were beaten and thus end the ruinously expensive contest. They had reckoned without the determination of Wilhelm II and Tirpitz. Germany saw the launch of Dreadnought as an opportunity, for although the new ship had rendered the German fleet obsolete, it had also done the same for the vast majority of existing British battleships. The balance sheet was cleared and it would now be a contest to see who could build dreadnoughts fastest. The arms race intensified in the years that followed as both sides strained to manufacture ever greater numbers of modern warships.

From Dreadnought onwards, each successive class of ships was bigger, faster, and more powerful than the last. Covered in thick steel plate, driven by the largest and most powerful engines available and carrying the heaviest guns it was possible to mount, the modern battleship was the most powerful weapon system in the world. The dreadnoughts were supported by battlecruisers, formidable vessels of comparable size that were built to emphasise speed and armament at the expense of armoured protection. In addition, both navies constructed numerous light cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats to support the heavy ships.

The naval race strained finances to the limit, but it was Britain which emerged as the clear leader. By the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had launched twenty dreadnoughts, with another twelve under construction, compared to thirteen German dreadnoughts, with seven being built.

Germany now faced a serious strategic problem. During the arms race, Tirpitz had deluded himself with the hope that the fleet would be a deterrent weapon that would intimidate Britain and convince it to stay neutral in the event of war. At its heart the policy was a bluff – and the bluff was abruptly called in August 1914. The German Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) now had to consider how to overcome the numerically superior Royal Navy.

The Balance of Power

Although heavily outnumbered, the High Seas Fleet had some advantages over the rival Grand Fleet. The most obvious was that it was concentrated in the North Sea. Whereas the British had to provide vessels to police the imperial trading lanes, the Germans could focus all their attention on the main theatre of operations. The expectation of operating in the North Sea had influenced German ship design. The vessels of the High Seas Fleet tended to be less heavily armed but more heavily armoured than their British counterparts. This trade-off was considered viable given Germany’s numerical disadvantage. Each vessel was precious and therefore survivability was of foremost importance.

There was no doubt that the German ships were highly resistant to damage. However, this fact was well known to the British Admiralty, and during the naval arms race a number of measures had been taken to nullify the German advantage in armoured protection. The British had increased the calibre of their heavy guns so that their latest vessels mounted mighty 15-inch batteries. More importantly, the British had also given serious thought to the design and effectiveness of their armour-piercing shells. Firing exercises had discovered numerous flaws with existing British ammunition. The most serious was the tendency of the shells to burst against armour plating rather than tearing through the steel and exploding in the interior of the enemy ship as they were intended. The problem was traced to a combination of inadequate fuses and unreliable explosive.

Director of Naval Ordnance and future commander of the Grand Fleet John Jellicoe was at the forefront of demanding improvements in ammunition. Although promotion soon took him away from his role with the ordnance department, he continued a vigorous campaign for better shells. The Admiralty reacted with the tardiness typical of large bureaucracies but Jellicoe refused to let the matter rest. The reform of the design, testing, and procurement process for new shells was painfully protracted but on the very eve of the war a new type of armour-piercing shell was finally accepted. Jellicoe was well pleased with the improved ammunition, claiming that it ‘certainly doubled’ the effectiveness of the Grand Fleet’s big guns. However, production delays caused by the demands of war meant that it took until mid-1915 for the fleet to be fully equipped with the new shells.

At the same time that ammunition was being improved, a fierce and often ill-tempered debate was raging over the best methods of fire control. At the heart of the issue was the firebrand Captain Percy Scott, who campaigned for centrally directed fire control and a wholesale reform of gunnery training. An abrasive and arrogant character, Scott nevertheless drove his reforms through and conclusively proved the value of his methods during gunnery trials. Admiral Sir John Fisher offered a blunt assessment of Scott: ‘I don’t care if he drinks, gambles and womanises; he hits the target.’

A particularly important reform pioneered by Scott was the adoption of a ‘double salvo’ system of fire. Under this system a capital ship would fire two quick salvos spaced several hundred yards apart. The fall of shot would be observed and appropriate corrections made: for example, if one salvo fell short and the other went over the target then the distance clearly lay in the middle and could be quickly calculated. Once the double salvo had acquired the range the guns would switch to rapid fire and smother the target with shells. The advantage of double salvo was that it allowed guns to zero in far quicker than if the range was determined using a single salvo.

The combined effect of these reforms was considerable. The Grand Fleet possessed more numerous and noticeably heavier guns than the High Seas Fleet. It was clear that in a fleet encounter the mighty broadsides of the British ships would prove decisive. As a result, Germany planned to fight a klienkrieg – a ‘small war’ – using mines and submarines. These subtle weapons would whittle away at the Royal Navy’s numerical preponderance until the number of British capital ships was so reduced that a fleet action could be fought on even terms.

Unfortunately for Germany, the strategy was bankrupt from the very beginning. The Royal Navy instituted a distant blockade based on closing the exits of the North Sea and refused to charge recklessly into German waters which were teeming with undersea hazards. For their part, the Germans limited their efforts to some commerce raiding and the occasional ‘tip and run’ bombardment of British seaside towns. However, the latter operations were abandoned after the German battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group barely escaped from a bruising encounter with their British opposites at the Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915.

Forbidden by order of Wilhelm II from taking undue risks, the High Seas Fleet spent the rest of 1915 in a state of inertia. Meanwhile, the British blockade slowly tightened. Rationing was introduced in Germany in early 1915. The German nation was in the grip of a British stranglehold and only the navy had the power to break it.

The Ambush

In early 1916 a new commander, Admiral Reinhard Scheer, took charge of the High Seas Fleet. Scheer recognised that the naval situation was intolerable for Germany. Its attempts to use submarines to attack British commerce had succeeded only in alienating the United States. By contrast, Britain’s surface blockade was unrelenting and would remain so as long as the Grand Fleet was still afloat.

Scheer proposed a new strategy. The High Seas Fleet would take the fight to the British by returning to ‘tip and run’ attacks and aggressive operations designed to lure the Grand Fleet into an unfavourable battle. Scheer hoped to inflict stinging losses by ambushing isolated squadrons of the Royal Navy and escaping before retribution followed. The High Seas Fleet would work alongside submarines and minelayers to draw the British into ambush zones.

Yet unbeknownst to Scheer, the strategy had a fatal flaw – the British knew his every move. In August 1914 the German cruiser Magdeburg had run aground in the Baltic and been captured by the Russians. Onboard were three copies of the German naval signals book and cyphers.8 The Russians shared a copy with the British, and by November the Admiralty had established a dedicated naval cryptography department codenamed Room 40. By 1916, Room 40 could decode virtually all German naval signals traffic. Relevant information was swiftly passed to Jellicoe and the Grand Fleet.

Ignorant of these developments, Scheer spent May 1916 planning an ambush for the British. The fast battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group would draw out the British battlecruisers and lead them on a chase that would ultimately carry them into the arms of the German battleships. Locally outnumbered, the British would be destroyed before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a simple and effective plan that may well have worked – but the British knew of it before it had even begun. In the small hours of 31 May, before Scheer had even set sail, the entire Grand Fleet had left port and was steaming towards the ambush area. Jellicoe planned to turn the tables on the Germans. His battlecruisers, under the command of flamboyant Vice- Admiral David Beatty, would ‘allow’ themselves to be drawn into Scheer’s trap. However, as soon as the German battleships appeared, Beatty was to turn about and lead them into a head-on collision with the awesome force of the entire Grand Fleet. The trap was set.

The Chase

The Battle of Jutland started in unassuming fashion. Beatty’s vessels were cruising in the region of anticipated German activity but the disappointing absence of enemy ships was in danger of dampening the mood. At 2.20 p.m. the light cruiser Galatea noticed a small tramp steamer blowing off an unusually large amount of steam, an action consistent with suddenly being forced to stop. Curious, the Galatea turned away from her sister ships and approached the civilian vessel. It was a minor incident in what had so far been an uneventful sweep.

As she approached the steamer, Galatea observed two unknown ships approaching from the opposite direction. Several pairs of binoculars snapped onto the newcomers and less than a minute later the signal ‘ENEMY IN SIGHT’ was flying from her yardarms and an urgent message had been whisked down to her wireless station. Seconds later she fired the first shot of the great battle, hurling a 6-inch shell at the approaching German ships.

The signal had an electrifying effect on Beatty’s squadron of six battlecruisers – Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Tiger, New Zealand, and Indomitable. With Beatty’s flagship Lion in the lead, the battlecruisers swung around towards the approaching enemy. The call ‘Action Stations!’ was sounded and dense smoke poured from the funnels of the fast, sleek ships as they worked up to their fearsome top speed of some twenty-seven knots. Following close behind were the four battleships of the 5th Battle Squadron – Barham, Valiant, Malaya, and Warspite – under the command of Rear-Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas. Ships of the Queen Elizabeth class, they were known as ‘super dreadnoughts’ due to their cutting-edge combination of armour, guns, and speed. Due to their high top speed of twenty-five knots the Queen Elizabeth class were the only heavy units capable of operating alongside battlecruisers; however, in any prolonged chase they would inevitably start to lose ground.

Fortunately for the British, Beatty had taken account of 5th Battle Squadron’s lower top speed and had kept the ships close to his battlecruisers so that they would not be left behind in any sudden change of course.9 Both battleships and battlecruisers now turned to the south-east, increasing speed and clearing the decks for action. Union flags were hoisted at the main mast and numerous white ensigns were run up the yardarms. Malaya raised the flag of the Federated States of Malaya. Ten formidable warships were now surging through the sea to meet the Germans head on.

Their opponents were the five battlecruisers of Rear-Admiral Franz von Hipper’s 1st Scouting Group – Lutzow, Derfflinger, Seydlitz, Moltke, and Von der Tann. A German gunner onboard Derfflinger recorded the approach of the British ships: ‘even at this great distance they looked powerful, massive … It was a stimulating, majestic spectacle as the dark-grey giants approached like fate itself.’ However, Hipper remained calm. His task was not to engage in a stand-up fight but instead to lure the British into reach of Scheer’s battleships. As Beatty and Evan-Thomas bore down on him, Hipper reversed course and began to race away to the south-east. The chase was on.

The range steadily decreased as the British closed in on the fleeing Germans. Beatty’s battlecruisers had reached twenty-five knots, with Evan-Thomas’s ships straining to keep up behind him. British and German destroyer flotillas rushed into the ‘no man’s land’ between the capital ships, prows bursting from the sea as they raced along at thirty-five knots. The tension was almost unbearable. A stoker in New Zealand remembered an ‘incredible thrill’ at hearing the order ‘All guns load!’ being relayed through the internal telephone system.

It was the Germans who began the firing. The broadsides of their battlecruisers rippled with flame as their sent out their first salvo at approximately 18,500 yards range – and closing fast. The British immediately returned fire. A crewman on Malaya remembered: ‘It was the most glorious sight and I was tremendously thrilled.’ Incoming shells ‘appeared just like big bluebottles flying straight towards you, each time going to hit you in the eye; then they would fall and the shell would either burst or else ricochet off the water and lollop away above and beyond you; turning over and over in the air.’

But shells soon began to smash home. Visibility favoured the Germans and they exploited their advantage to the full. Tiger was set ablaze and a direct hit on Lion blew the roof off a forward turret and started a dangerous fire that threatened to detonate the magazine – and with it the entire ship – until the chamber was flooded by order of the fatally injured Major Francis Harvey, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his action. Most seriously of all, the Indomitable was simultaneously struck by almost every shot of a salvo fired from Von der Tann. The damage was catastrophic: ablaze from stem to stern, Indomitable turned away from the action and tried to open the range, but within a minute she was engulfed in a huge explosion and disappeared beneath the waves.

The British battlecruisers returned fire furiously but their gunnery was wayward, for their crews were not as thoroughly trained as their Grand Fleet comrades. However, the big guns of the 5th Battle Squadron were a different proposition. A German crewman recalled of the Queen Elizabeths: ‘There had been much talk in our fleet of these ships … Their speed was scarcely inferior to ours but they fired a shell more than twice as heavy as ours. They opened fire at portentous ranges.’

The effect was swift. Fifteen-inch shells plunged down around the German ships, causing devastation wherever they struck. All of Hipper’s ships felt the force of this fire, but Von der Tann was hit particularly hard. Shells wrecked her superstructure and caused serious flooding below decks. One crewman recalled that the ‘tremendous blow’ of being hit by a 15-inch shell made the ‘hull vibrate longitudinally like a tuning fork’.

Although visibility favoured Hipper’s ships, the greater weight of British fire began to tell on the 1st Scouting Group. German vessels shuddered beneath high-calibre-shell hits that sliced through steel plate as though it were paper. Soon Hipper’s battlecruisers were cloaked beneath the smoke of the numerous fires that raged aboard. Von der Tann was so heavily damaged that she could scarcely fire a single gun, but her captain courageously kept her in the line so that the British could not concentrate fire on her sister ships. German fire slackened as the 1st Scouting Group adopted a zigzag pattern to try and throw off the aim of the British ships.

However, Hipper could endure such punishment as long as he could fulfil his part of the German plan. Every minute of the chase brought the British closer to Scheer’s battleships. The trap was about to be sprung.

What If: Britannia Rules the Waves: The Battle of Jutland, 1916 Part II

Montague Dawson paints the German High Seas Fleet, under command of Admiral Reinhard Scheer, perform a daring and untested full speed turn in unison to escape the range of the British Grand Fleet under command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe on the horizon.

The Run to the North

At approximately 4.35 p.m. a barrage of signals burst from Beatty’s advanced light cruiser screen. The most important was ‘Have sighted enemy battlefleet SE. Enemy course north.’ Scheer and his battleships were on the way.

However, Beatty had been prepared for this due to the information relayed by Room 40. Wasting no time, at 4.40 p.m. he ordered his squadron to swing about and begin its own race to the north. In a role reversal, Hipper’s ships turned and now became the pursuers, whilst Scheer and his dreadnoughts increased their speed and strained to bring their heavy guns to bear.

Fortunately for the British the turn away from Scheer was executed with skill. The 5th Battle Squadron fell into line behind Beatty’s battlecruisers and the two squadrons raced north. The battle against Hipper’s ships continued, and the 5th Battle Squadron exchanged long-range fire with the van of Scheer’s battlefleet. A British sailor remembered that ‘their salvos began to arrive thick and fast around us at the rate of 6, 8, or 9 a minute.’ Visibility once again favoured the Germans, but both sides scored hits. By now the 1st Scouting Group was feeling the effects of an hour of fierce combat. At around 5 p.m. Von der Tann, listing and ablaze, suffered a serious hit to her engine room that brought her to a shuddering halt. Down at the bows and crippled beyond repair, she sank within the hour.

Scheer was prepared to accept these losses if he could catch and destroy Beatty’s force. Unfortunately for the Germans, every minute brought them closer to the British trap. Beatty was sending a steady stream of positional reports to the rapidly approaching Jellicoe, who was well informed as to the German course, speed, and bearing.18 At 4.51 p.m. Jellicoe had felt sufficiently confident to send a tantalising signal to the Admiralty: ‘FLEET ACTION IS IMMINENT’.

Jellicoe had a little longer to wait. It was not until around 5.40 p.m. that Beatty made contact with the advance elements of the Grand Fleet. At this point Beatty made an important and decisive manoeuvre, turning his ships on a north-easterly course and cutting across the German vessels that were running parallel to him. This caused the Germans to turn onto a similar course themselves to avoid Beatty ‘crossing the T’ and being able to concentrate the fire of his entire squadron on the first ship in the German line. A German officer later commented that this was ‘an excellent tactical manoeuvre’, for it blinded Scheer to the approach of the Grand Fleet until it was far too late.

Concealed from German view and with the element of surprise on his side, Jellicoe gave orders for his massive fleet to change from cruising formation to a battle line. This was a decision that could have momentous consequences. If Jellicoe got the manoeuvre wrong his ships would blunder into battle in a state of disorganisation and possibly be defeated as a result. The stakes were enormous. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, Jellicoe ‘was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon’.

If the gravity of the situation weighed on Jellicoe’s mind, his ice-cold demeanour did not betray the fact. His orders were clear and his crews thoroughly trained. With a smoothness that belied the complexity of the manoeuvre, twenty-four dreadnoughts deployed into a compact fighting line approximately six miles in length. Years after the battle, the famous fighting admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham remarked: ‘I hope I would have the sense to make the same deployment that JJ did.’

The Tables Are Turned

Scheer was about to receive the shock of his life. A fellow officer on the bridge of the Friedrich der Grosse noted that Scheer did not have ‘the foggiest idea of what was happening’. The German fleet of sixteen dreadnoughts and six pre-dreadnoughts was heading directly towards the massed broadsides of the Grand Fleet. Beatty’s sharp turn had blinded the Germans to the danger which they were about to face.

Hipper’s battered vessels were the first to feel the force of the British guns. Localised fog had descended across part of the seascape and Hipper was surprised when several fresh British battlecruisers – the vanguard of the Grand Fleet – suddenly emerged at medium range. Both sides opened fire immediately but the British gunnery was exceptionally good. Invincible rained shells on the German ships, prompting her captain to inform his gunnery officer: ‘Your fire is very good. Keep it up as quickly as you can. Every shot is telling!’ The punishment proved too much for Hipper’s flagship Lutzow, which staggered away from the action with mortal damage below the waterline. Hipper transferred his flag to a torpedo boat but was unable to get aboard a capital ship for the remainder of the battle, thus removing his dynamic leadership from the German fleet.

However, this short, violent clash of battlecruisers was only a precursor to the main event. At around 6.20 p.m. ‘the veil of mist was split across like the curtain at a theatre’ and Scheer’s battlefleet was confronted with an image of Armageddon. One officer recalled that all he could see on the horizon was ‘the belching guns of an interminable line of heavy ships, salvo followed salvo almost without intermission.’

The results were devastating. Jellicoe’s flagship Iron Duke singled out the König and fired forty-three shells at her in less than five minutes, scoring hit after hit. Shell splinters ripped through the armoured compartments, gun turrets were torn asunder, and an officer recalled being knocked off his feet as a result of ‘several violent concussions in the forepart of the ship’ that produced a drastic list to port. More hits followed until the König suddenly lurched over and capsized.

Elsewhere the courageous battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Group finally met their nemesis. The gunnery officer of Derfflinger recalled: ‘Several heavy shells pierced our ship with terrific force and exploded with a tremendous roar which shook every seam and rivet.’ With her lower compartments flooded, her funnels shot away and her gun turrets reduced to burning wreckage, Derfflinger finally disappeared beneath the deluge of fire. Her sister ships Moltke and Seydlitz only escaped a similar fate by retreating into the mist, concealed by smoke from the uncontrolled fires that raged aboard. The 1st Scouting Group had effectively been destroyed. Seydlitz would sink later that night and Moltke was lucky to be able to limp home with severe damage.

Scheer had a single chance to save his fleet. With shells plunging down around his ships and the König vanishing beneath the waves, Scheer ordered a Gefechtskehrtwendung – a sudden, simultaneous turn away – to take his ships away from Jellicoe’s punishing fire. It is a testament to the quality of German training that the manoeuvre was carried out comparatively successfully, although Scheer’s lead ships were subjected to a hail of shells that inflicted further damage. Turning his back to the British, Scheer led his vessels away into the darkening mist.

Jellicoe was not in a position to observe the manoeuvre and was initially perplexed as to what had happened. Expecting Scheer to re-emerge from the fog at any moment, Jellicoe steered his fleet to the south to close in on his quarry. At this point, Scheer made a fatal mistake. As the firing died out, he reasoned that if he were to reverse course again then he would pass in the wake of the Grand Fleet, effectively slipping behind them while they fruitlessly cruised south. This done, he would be able to escape into the dusk and retreat to safer waters.

However, Scheer had miscalculated. Instead of slipping behind the Grand Fleet, he mistimed his turn and led his ships right into the middle of the southbound British line. The position was even worse than during the initial clash. The German line was in a state of disorganisation, many ships were struggling to put out fires caused by the earlier encounter with Jellicoe, and the 1st Scouting Group had been forced to withdraw from the action, leaving the High Seas Fleet partially blind. Visibility decisively favoured the Grand Fleet: British ships were partially concealed in the North Sea mist, but German vessels were silhouetted against the horizon and presented a perfect target.

The German situation was dire. Scheer’s vessels were closely bunched as a result of their earlier sharp turns. The congestion at the head of the fleet was so severe that some ships were forced to stop to avoid collisions with their sisters. One officer described the situation as an ‘absoluten Wurstkessel!’ A tornado of British fire swept through the German line. Salvo after salvo shrieked in from the east, with the source only visible from the constant gun flashes that illuminated the horizon.

With the 1st Scouting Group gone from the battle, the British were able to concentrate every available gun on Scheer’s dreadnoughts. The damage was catastrophic. A shell smashed into the engine room of the Markgraf and exploded with dreadful force. A survivor recalled: ‘The terrific air pressure resulting from [an] explosion in a confined space roars through every opening and tears through every weak spot. Men were picked up by that terrific air pressure and tossed to a horrible death among the machinery.’ Grosser Kurfurst was struck by a 15-inch round that blew a thirty-foot-wide hole below her waterline and caused her to list sharply to port. A shell ripped through a casemate gun battery aboard Kaiser and ignited stored ammunition, causing a huge gout of flame to erupt from the side of the ship.

With his battleships reeling under the remorseless guns of the Grand Fleet, Scheer desperately ordered a second Gefechtskehrtwendung. But the manoeuvre was no easy matter under heavy fire, with the High Seas Fleet dangerously bunched and forced to steer around the crippled Markgraf. In the confusion Kronprinz and Prinzregent Luitpold collided, with both ships suffering severe damage as a result. Attempting to buy time, Scheer ordered his torpedo boat flotillas to rush the Grand Fleet and launch a mass torpedo attack.

The small vessels raced towards the Grand Fleet, braving a barrage of fire from the secondary batteries of the battleships. Jellicoe responded by steering his ships away from the oncoming attack, causing many of the torpedoes to run out of range well short of his battle line. The few that reached the battleships were easily avoided. The manoeuvre was a ‘skilful dodge’ that left Jellicoe’s line undamaged and fully formed.

However, the turn away had broken contact with Scheer’s ships, which had disappeared into the gloomy twilight, leaving behind only the stricken Markgraf, which was swiftly ‘blotted out’ by a hail of heavy shells. Steering towards Scheer’s last position, Jellicoe’s ships sporadically opened fire at dim sightings in the mist, but the fading light prevented a renewal of battle.

The darkness saved the High Seas Fleet from complete destruction, but the German fleet experienced a harrowing night. On several occasions the picket lines of light cruisers and destroyers brushed against one another, prompting sudden, savage skirmishes in which both sides lost ships. More seriously for Scheer, British destroyer flotillas slipped through the German cruiser screen to launch daring torpedo attacks against his battleships. In the confused engagement that followed, the German pre-dreadnought Pommern was hit and sank with all hands.

As the night wore on, Scheer planned his escape route. He guessed that the British would be steaming south to try and cut off his retreat. He hoped to slip behind them and take his surviving ships home to Wilhelmshaven via the Horns Reef. He reasoned Jellicoe would be unlikely to pursue for fear of running into hidden German minefields.

But Room 40 was a step ahead. At 10.10 p.m. they had decrypted a signal from Scheer which asked for zeppelin reconnaissance over Horns Reef at first light. The message was in Jellicoe’s hands by 10.30 p.m. and he altered the Grand Fleet’s course to intercept Scheer at first light. This was not a simple manoeuvre and involved a great deal of what Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt described as ‘groping in the dark’. Tensions were high and the night was punctuated by sudden bursts of gunfire at real or imagined targets.

Both British and German officers anxiously scanned the horizon as the grey dawn began to break over the North Sea. However, it was the weather – the ultimate arbiter of naval warfare – that would define the engagement of 1 June. The sea around Horns Reef was shrouded with dense fog that gradually broke up into thick clouds of drifting mist. Visibility was poor and information sketchy.

In places the mist suddenly cleared and short, sharp actions broke out. These engagements proved fatal for several damaged German vessels. The most serious loss was the Prinzregent Luitpold. The ship was already listing due to severe damage below the waterline as a result of her earlier collision when she was suddenly engaged at long range by Benbow. Prinzregent Luitpold was hit several times in the brief exchange of fire that followed, causing further flooding and forcing her crew to abandon ship.

However, there was to be no general engagement on 1 June. Visibility was poor and although Jellicoe was aware from sighting reports that he was in rough proximity to the southbound High Seas Fleet, he was increasingly concerned that he was in danger of leading his vessels into one of the many German minefields in the area. Ultimately, a fresh Room 40 decrypt informed Jellicoe that Scheer was in the region of Heligoland to the south. The High Seas Fleet had slipped away in the mist. Jellicoe was disappointed and afterwards criticised himself for not pressing the retreating Germans harder, but he was comforted by a letter from Beatty in which the latter reminded his commander, ‘When you are winning, risk nothing.’

Nevertheless, it was clear that the Royal Navy had won a striking victory. The High Seas Fleet had been mauled, losing four battlecruisers in the form of Lutzow, Seydlitz, Derfflinger, and Von der Tann, five battleships – König, Kaiser, Grosser Kurfurst, Markgraf, and Prinzregent Luitpold – as well as the pre-dreadnought Pommern and a considerable number of lighter ships. In addition, unbeknownst to the British the battleship Ostfriesland struck a mine on its way home and sank.

The Battle of Jutland was over. The triumph was not quite on the scale of Trafalgar, but it was a great victory for the Royal Navy all the same.

The Fruits of Victory

The Grand Fleet returned home in a jubilant mood. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on the Germans and suffered few casualties in return – Indefatigable was the only British capital ship lost during the fighting. Jellicoe was the hero of the hour and was lauded by press, public, and navy. Beatty also received lavish praise, although he was heard to grumble that without the efforts of his battlecruisers the battle would never have occurred, much less been won. After almost two years of difficulties and setbacks on the land front, the British public savoured the moment of triumph. The ‘spell of Trafalgar’ had been recast.

The Admiralty soon sought to capitalise on the victory. There was bold talk of withdrawing the Royal Naval Division from the Western Front and using it in an amphibious assault against one of the small islands that dotted the German North Sea coast. Daring attacks on Heligoland and Borkum were proposed as a precursor to a landing on the coastline of Germany itself. However, the painful lessons of Gallipoli were still fresh in British minds and there was little appetite for another risky amphibious operation. Furthermore, such naval adventures would needlessly place elements of the Grand Fleet at risk and allow the Germans to extract some measure of revenge for Jutland.

Nevertheless some of the bolder officers of the Royal Navy saw merit in making feints against the German coast. They reasoned that the psychological effect of ‘demonstrations, raids, and harassment’ in enemy waters would be considerable. The inability of the High Seas Fleet to prevent such operations would be revealed, thereby harming public morale and perhaps even persuading the German General Staff to transfer additional army resources to defend the coast.

Over the course of 1916 the Royal Navy launched several raids against German coastal islands and associated shipping. The highly trained Harwich Force and its dynamic commander, Commodore Roger Keyes, were at the forefront of these operations. Although the attackers were at risk from mines and submarines, they were secure in the knowledge that the battleships of the cowed High Seas Fleet would not emerge to destroy them. Germany’s coastal defence forces consisted of small or obsolete vessels that were no match for the modern destroyers and light cruisers of Harwich Force. Several German ships were intercepted and sunk during raids in June and July. In August, Harwich Force took advantage of a captured map that revealed the swept channels in the German minefields and carried out a daring bombardment against shore installations on Heligoland. One of the shells struck an overstocked magazine and caused a huge explosion that was visible on the German coastline. The incident sparked alarm amongst the civilian population, who feared that it was a precursor to a British invasion. As a result, the army sent additional forces to Hamburg and invested considerable effort in improving Germany’s coastal defences.

The most important consequence of the Battle of Jutland was the tightening of the Allied blockade. Although the naval cordon was already formidable, there were some weaknesses that allowed neutral powers to continue trade with Germany. For example, Norway had continued to trade materials such as coal, copper ore, and nickel on the basis that they were not classed as contraband under the terms of the London Naval Conference of 1909. However, the dominance of the Royal Navy after Jutland allowed Britain to pressure Norway and other neutrals into ceasing maritime trade with Germany altogether.

In addition, the victory had altered the balance of power in the Baltic. Russian and German vessels had sparred with one another throughout 1915, but Russian efforts were hampered by concerns that Germany would deploy the High Seas Fleet to the east and overwhelm Russia’s Baltic defences. Jutland removed this fear and allowed Russia to adopt a more aggressive naval strategy. Encouraged by Britain, Russia targeted Germany’s iron-ore trade with neutral Sweden. Although the delicate nature of Russo-Swedish relations made it impossible to halt the trade entirely, the efforts of the Russian Navy greatly diminished the flow of the precious raw material.

In combination, these changes applied a deep chokehold on Germany’s economic windpipe. The pressure steadily mounted in the second half of 1916 and the effects would be severely felt the following year.

Recriminations and Consequences

In Germany, the search for a scapegoat began scant hours after the battered remnants of the High Seas Fleet had limped into Wilhelmshaven. On hearing news of the disaster Wilhelm II worked himself to such a pitch of fury that witnesses feared for his health. The worst of his wrath fell upon Scheer. Citing the example of Admiral John Byng, a British officer executed by firing squad in 1757 for ‘failing to do his utmost in battle’, the Kaiser demanded that Scheer be placed on trial for his very life. The demand met with concerted opposition from officers and men of the fleet – including its new commander, Franz von Hipper – as well as from ministers and politicians.

Wilhelm II ultimately backed down in the face of threats of resignation and mutterings of mutiny in the fleet. Soon, his mood had changed from anger to despair. Depressed over the fate of his beloved navy, he refused to visit the remaining vessels of the High Seas Fleet and lost all interest in naval matters. The Kaiser’s apathy hurt the survivors of Jutland deeply, contributing to a precipitate decline in morale that would fester into open mutiny by early 1917.

The Naval Staff remained detached from the post-battle recriminations and devoted their efforts to formulating a new strategy. The possibility of an Allied landing against the German coast was studied in depth. Although the exploits of Harwich Force caused a degree of concern, the Germans judged that the British were unlikely to risk capital ships in mine-infested coastal waters. Nevertheless, the Naval Staff gratefully accepted the offer of army support and the construction of heavy-gun emplacements on the North Sea coastline.

A much more serious problem was the remorseless and intensifying blockade. Planners warned that the German economy would be brought to its knees in 1917 unless the stranglehold was broken. But how was this to be achieved? There was no prospect of defeating the Grand Fleet in battle. In the view of many key naval officers the only hope lay in the submarine. In late June, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff produced a controversial memorandum arguing that a return to unrestricted U-boat warfare was Germany’s only hope of victory. This was a risky proposal, for a new submarine campaign would bring the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. Holtzendorff’s case rested on the belief that submarines could inflict such severe damage on maritime trade that Britain would be forced to seek terms within six to eight months. Britain would thus be defeated long before America had fully mobilised. The plan was a huge gamble, but it offered the tantalising prospect of victory.

On 1 September 1916 Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite initial successes the policy would prove disastrous. Neutral opinion was enraged and the United States declared war in November. Worse still, Britain was ultimately able to overcome the submarine menace through introducing the convoy system and assigning large numbers of destroyers from the Grand Fleet to serve as escorts. The full and terrible consequences of Germany’s policy would become apparent in 1917.

The Reality

The Battle of Jutland is one of the most studied naval engagements of all time. The debate still continues as to which side ‘won’ the battle. The Germans inflicted heavier losses, sinking the battlecruisers Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible and only losing the battlecruiser Lutzow in return. But ultimately the High Seas Fleet fled from the engagement damaged and in disorder. The experience was sufficient to convince Scheer that future surface engagements were best avoided. As a result the German Navy would not seek battle in the North Sea for the remainder of the war. After casting about for a solution for several months, Germany finally returned to submarine warfare in February 1917. The High Seas Fleet languished in harbour and was wracked by mutiny in November 1918.

There are innumerable ‘what ifs’ around the Battle of Jutland, many of which focus on the contrasting personalities and decisions of Beatty and Jellicoe. Much of the interest of Jutland centres on how close the British came to a crushing victory. Historically, the British had a tremendous advantage in the form of Room 40 and possession of the German code books. As described in the story, British intelligence on Scheer’s movements was so good that the Grand Fleet actually set sail before the High Seas Fleet had left port. Such accurate intelligence placed the initiative firmly in the Royal Navy’s hands. Beatty managed to lead the unsuspecting High Seas Fleet into range of Jellicoe’s guns and Scheer’s ships were in mortal danger, particularly when they blundered into the Grand Fleet for the second time. However, Jellicoe lost sight of the enemy by turning away to avoid a torpedo attack and was unable to regain contact in the evening gloom.

In this scenario the main change to the history is technical rather than tactical. A fundamental problem for the Royal Navy was the inadequacy of their armour-piercing shells. A detailed study of damage at Jutland discovered that British armour-piercing shells managed to penetrate heavy armour and explode internally on just one occasion (a 15-inch hit from Revenge on Derfflinger). Historically, Jellicoe was aware of the problems with British shells as early as 1910, but made little effort to make changes.

In the story these problems are corrected by Jellicoe prior to the war. I have assumed the Royal Navy are equipped with the improved shells that appeared in 1917–18, making British gunnery far more powerful. I have also had the navy adopt the ‘double salvo’ system prior to the war; historically it was introduced post-Jutland to speed up gunnery, but there is no reason why it could not have been introduced earlier.

The main tactical change in the scenario is Beatty’s performance in the opening of the battle. In reality, Beatty made a serious tactical error by leaving the 5th Battle Squadron too far behind his battlecruisers, thus denying himself their powerful support in the engagement against Hipper. Here I have assumed he handles his forces with more skill and keeps the Queen Elizabeth class close. This would have dramatically changed the nature of the fighting and probably saved the Queen Mary from destruction. Finally, I have introduced the Room 40 decrypt that revealed Scheer was heading to Horns Reef, thus allowing the Grand Fleet a few parting shots. Historically, it remains a mystery why this message was never passed on to Jellicoe.

I am very grateful to Dr Philip Weir for his assistance in researching this scenario.

By Spencer Jones

Operation Chariot – The Plan I

Late 1941 and early 1942 saw Britain’s darkest hours, pushed back in the Western Desert and with its eastern empire crumbling to Japanese aggression, the country stood alone with only the Atlantic convoys keeping the country afloat. These convoys were threatened by one of Germany’s greatest weapons, the Tirpitz, a battleship that far outclassed anything in the British armoury. The sheer size of the ship limited it to only a few ports where it could be repaired if it were to be damaged, a dry dock of immense proportions would be required, the only one that could be accessed from its main hunting ground, the Atlantic Ocean, was at Saint Nazaire, in western France. Originally constructed for the ocean liner ‘Normandie’, the dry dock was itself an impressive structure and an impossible target to destroy from the air. A force would have to be landed and destroy it with explosives, this was the task handed to the chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

A force of Commandos was to be taken six miles up the Loire estuary to Saint Nazaire aboard an antiquated destroyer packed with explosives and modified to resemble a German destroyer. The vessel would ‘bluff’ its way past the many German defensive positions using captured recognition codes, the destroyer would then ram the dry dock gates, set a fuse and disembark the Commandos who would set about various sabotage tasks. This force was to be escorted by eighteen small motor launches, who would then embark the Commandos and withdraw. It was an impossible task, perhaps the only chance of success was the Germans would never imagine the British to carry out such an audacious raid.

The Plan

As they sailed steadily towards the open sea the force changed formation into Cruising Order No. 1, which was their simulation of an anti-submarine sweep. On Atherstone’s signal, the longitudinal columns to port and starboard of the destroyers opened out from the rear until they were disposed in the form of a broad, open arrowhead, four cables behind the tip of which steamed Atherstone. In the open spaces to the rear of each ‘wing’ steamed Campbeltown, still with the MTB in tow, and Tynedale.

Remembering that fine first day, Newman, who with his staff was being made very comfortable on board the Atherstone, writes that ‘the thrill of the voyage was upon me – the study of the navigational course with the Navy – the continuous lookout for enemy aircraft – the preparation of one’s own personal kit to land in – and the deciphering and reading of W/T messages from the Commander-in-Chief made night fall on us in no time.’

Across in Campbeltown, Copland and the eighty-odd men of his Group Three parties were being made just as welcome by the truncated crew of the old destroyer. ‘There was little to do’ he remembers; ‘all our preparations had been made on PJC and it only remained to arrange our tours of duty for AA Defence, rehearse “Action Stations” and wait. Troops and sailors were very quickly “buddies”, and as no khaki was allowed to be seen on deck the limited number who were allowed up . . . appeared in motley naval garb, anything from oilskins to duffle coats, not forgetting Lieutenant Burtinshaw who discovered one of Beattie’s old naval caps and wore it during the whole voyage. During this first day too, we allocated all our landing ladders and ropes in places on deck where we thought they would be most wanted. Gough [Lieutenant Gough, RN, Beattie’s No. 1] was to be in charge of all tying-up and ladder control and his help in the allocation was invaluable.’

In the MLs also the pattern of ready camaraderie between ‘pongos’ and ‘matelots’ was quickly established, the representatives of the two services managing to live cheek-by-jowl in the crowded living spaces without dispute. Feeding more than twice the normal complement of men from the limited resources of the tiny midships galley was something of a problem for the designated cook, although in the early stages of the voyage seasickness, or the fear of it, robbed more than a few Commandos of their appetites. Tough as they might have been on dry land, some Commandos had nonetheless blanched at the mere thought of doing battle with the fearsome Bay of Biscay; typical of these was Bombardier ‘Jumbo’ Reeves, of Brett’s demolition party for the inner dry-dock caisson. A member of 12 Commando who had volunteered from the Royal Artillery, Jumbo was a qualified pilot whose aerial ambitions had been dashed as the result of an extreme susceptibility to airsickness. As one of those unfortunates whose stomach tended to come up with the anchor cable, he had had pronounced misgivings about setting off from Falmouth. For Jumbo, as for many others, the unexpected quiescence of the sea came, therefore, as a gift from God.

In the crowded messdecks as the sailors came and went with the changing of the watches, the Commandos talked and smoked, dozed on the matelots’ bunks, played cards and checked and re-checked their equipment. Proud of their hard-won skills, they were happy to demonstrate their prowess to their hosts, such as the nineteen-year-old Ordinary Seaman Sam Hinks, the forward Oerlikon gunner on ML 443, who had gone so far as to change his name so that his parents couldn’t stop him from joining up. As with so many of the other young sailors, who, unlike their thoroughly briefed Commando brothers, were only now being made aware of their target’s identity, Sam was still coming to terms with the fact that they were really on their way to attack a distant foreign port. In keeping with the times when foreign travel was still the exclusive preserve of the monied classes, Sam knew little of France and nothing at all of this place called St Nazaire: in fact, when first hearing the name during a conversation with a Commando by the forward gun, he recalls that, ‘St Nazaire meant as much to me as if you were going to Timbuktu!’

Having opened their sealed orders once clear of land, the reaction of the officers to the revelation of their target’s identity had generally been that this was a port into which no one with any common sense would wish to sail without benefit of armour plate and heavy guns.

Across on the starboard wing of the formation, ‘Temporary Acting’ Sub-Lieutenant Frank Arkle, the twenty-year-old First Officer of ML 177, who before the war had been a clerk in the offices of W.D. and H.O. Wills, greeted the news with ‘some uncertainty and a sort of cold resignation’. Behind him in England were his family, his friends, and his childhood sweetheart, Meg; ahead lay a task of prodigious difficulty from which none could confidently expect to return. It was a prospect about which he and many others found it was best not to think too deeply. Better by far to focus on not letting the side down and leave all the rest to fate.

On board the gunboat, which was swinging like a pendulum at the end of Atherstone’s tow, Curtis had briefed his crew shortly after the force adopted its cruising formation, prompting Chris Worsley to conclude that they were all embarked upon a very ambitious and dangerous enterprise. Strangely, though, considering all the circumstances, he neither thought of, nor worried about, survival, as it simply never struck him that he might be killed.

Closer to the centre point of the formation, Lieutenant Tom Boyd, RNVR, the skipper of the torpedo-armed ML 160, was concerned about how well the force would perform in action, bearing in mind its poor overall standard of training. There simply hadn’t been time to school the crews properly in working as a cohesive unit; as evidence of their lack of preparedness he could cite the same poor standards of station-keeping that were worring Ryder himself. Indeed, during the course of this first day Ryder would make no less than fifty signals to boats, instructing them to close up.

Standing on the bridge of Billie Stephens’ ML 192 Leading Telegraphist Jim Laurie, from Coldstream in Scotland, learned of his fate from the skipper himself. A regular, who had joined the Navy in 1936 at the age of only sixteen, Jim had led something of a charmed life, having survived the sinking of the destroyer Delight, as well as the loss to a mine of ML 144, while he was fortunate enough to be on leave. Looking back at the fast-disappearing coastline, Stephens said to him, ‘Do you think if you jumped overboard you could swim back to Falmouth?’ Replying in the negative, Jim was then told, ‘Right. You can go in the wheelhouse and study the maps and you’ll see just where we’re going.’ For Jim, as for all the sailors, there was never a question of choice. The highly trained Commandos had been offered a get out, while the much less experienced sailors had not; yet, once they were under the German guns, the risk for all would be the same.

Standing as an example of so many of the sailors, who, on hearing for the first time what was expected of them, rapidly concluded that someone, somewhere must have a screw loose, was Stoker Len Ball of Ted Burt’s ML 262. A twenty-five-year-old process chemical worker from Barking in Essex, Len could not believe that they really intended to sail right through the front door of such a heavily defended base in boats that were little better than tinder boxes. After the briefing he returned to the engine room and thought about it all; the more he thought about it, the more impossible it seemed. He was no more privy than were his pals to all the details of the German guns that lay in wait to greet them, but he knew that, provided the Jerry gunners did their jobs right, there were more than enough of them to cause very substantial damage indeed.

Waiting for Len and the other ‘Charioteers’, along either bank of the estuary as well as in and around the port itself, were some seventy pieces of ordnance, varying in calibre from 20mm quick-firing cannon all the way up to the huge 240mm railway guns of Battery Batz, a little way west of La Baule.

Under the overall command of the See Kommandant Loire, Kapitän zur See Zuckschwerdt, who was headquartered in La Baule itself, these consisted of two main classes of weapon, each designed to fulfil a specific purpose. Emplaced so as to defend the approaches to the estuary were the heavy batteries of Korvettenkapitän Edo Dieckmann’s 280th Naval Artillery Battalion, with Dieckmann himself headquartered close by the gun battery and Naval Radar Station on Chémoulin Point. While for the dual-purpose defence of the port itself there were waiting the three battalions of the 22nd Naval Flak Brigade, commanded by Kapitän zur See Mecke, whose own headquarters were situated close to Dieckmann’s at St Marc.

Ranging in calibre through 75, 150, 170 and 240mm, Dieckmann’s coastal guns were arranged in battery positions, primarily along the northern shore of the estuary, close to which lay the deep-water channel which any ship of substance must use in order to reach the port. These fixed emplacements began at the estuary mouth, and ran eastwards as far as the Villès-Martin – Le Pointeau narrows, at which point the sea-space was reduced to a mere 2.25 sea miles, and beyond which lay the province of Mecke’s Flak Brigade.

Approaching the estuary mouth in their attack formation of two long parallel columns extending over almost 2, 000 metres of sea, with the gunboat in the van, and Campbeltown steaming between the leading troop-carrying MLs, the ‘Chariot’ force would find itself entering into a perfect trap from which it would be the very devil to escape. On their starboard beam and guarding the southern extremity of the estuary shore would be the 75mm guns of Battery St Gildas; while to port, and guarding the north, there would be railway guns just inland from the Pointe de Penchâteau. Fine on their starboard bow, as they approached across the shallows, would be the guns of Battery le Pointeau, backed by the 150cm searchlight ‘Yellow 3’; fine to port would be the cluster of batteries comprising the 150mm guns of Battery Chémoulin and the 75mm and 170mm cannon of the cliff-top position close by the Pointe de l’Eve. Backing the cliff-top emplacements was the 150cm searchlight ‘Blue 2’.

It was to divert the attention of these defences that the diversionary air raid had been proposed, for without it the ‘Charioteers’ would be forced to rely on luck, their low silhouettes, their unexpected line of approach and such devices as Ryder believed might confuse the enemy into mistaking them for a friendly force. Either way, with or without the bombers, this passage of the outer portion of the estuary would be fraught with danger, including that from mines, patrol vessels and possibly even Schmidt’s destroyers; every sea-mile gained towards the target without the alarm being raised would be a triumph.

Assuming they made it to the narrows, they would then be passing into the restricted throat of the estuary, less than two sea-miles from their target, but with the full weight of Mecke’s three flak battalions ranged close by them on either hand. These lighter, dual-purpose weapons of the 703rd, 705th and 809th Battalions, primarily 20 and 40mm, but with a sprinkling of 37s, would be able to switch quickly from air to surface targets, and COHQ’s original concept of an approach by stealth had been constructed around the premise that their crews must be far too busy firing skywards to worry about the seaward approaches to the town.

Running past Korvettenkapitän Thiessen’s 703rd Battalion, backed by the large searchlight ‘Blue 1’, they would come within easy range of the defences both of the outer harbour and of the Pointe de Mindin on their starboard beam, where were mounted the searchlights and 20mm cannon of Korvettenkapitän Burhenne’s 809th Battalion. At this point, with the range so short, the ‘Charioteers’ would at least be able to reply in kind; however, they would also be at their most vulnerable, which is why the air plan had been designed to reach its crescendo during this period. Should the diversion succeed, then the force just might reach the dockyard intact, at which point, while Campbeltown raced for her caisson, the columns of MLs would break to port and make for their own two landing points.

As leader of the formation, the gunboat, carrying Ryder, Newman, Day, Terry, Holman and a handful of the HQ party, would circle to starboard and support Campbeltown as she made her final dash. Only after she was in place would Curtis put Newman’s party ashore in the Old Entrance. To observe and record the gunboat’s subsequent peregrinations, Holman would remain on board with Ryder.

In company with Curtis, and positioned at the head of either column, the non-troop-carrying torpedo MLs, 160 and 270, were to make up a small forward striking force on the way in, should enemy patrol craft be encountered. While the landings were taking place, their job would also be to draw fire and protect their fellow ‘B’s from interference.

Following ML 270 would be the troop-carrying MLs of the port column, scheduled to land against the slipway on the northern face of the Old Mole. Drawn from Wood’s 28th Flotilla, these were now under the direct command of Platt in ML 447. As for the starboard column, sailing in behind ML 160, Stephens’ ML 192 and the remaining three troop-carriers of his own 20th Flotilla would lead the second pair of 7th Flotilla boats. Being torpedo-armed, the latter two would have the secondary role of protecting the force from rearward attack. All six boats in this column were to pass under Campbeltown’s stern and put their men ashore in the Old Entrance.

Destined to play a crucial role in the coming action, both as a primary landing point and as the position from which all retiring soldiers were to attempt to withdraw, the Old Mole jutted some 130 metres into the waters of the Loire. Standing twenty feet above the decks of the MLs, even at the full height of the tide, it represented an obstacle which was almost medieval in character – a fortress wall rising sheer from the water, which must somehow be scaled, but from the top of which its defenders would prove almost impossible to dislodge.

Strongly fortified by the Germans, its upper surface was crowned by two substantial concrete emplacements, each more than a match for the puny shells with which the ‘Chariot’ force would be obliged to attack them. At its seaward end, a little to the rear of the lighthouse which marked its furthest extension, was searchlight emplacement LS 21; about one third of the way along was the 20mm gun position number 63, firing through embrasures and all but impervious to attack. Not on the Mole itself, but situated close by its landward end, and positioned so as to control the approaches to its northern face, was the 40mm gun position number 62.

Protected by shallow water where it joined the quayside, the Mole could be effectively attacked only by means of the long slipway running up its northern face. At its tip, and giving access to the lighthouse, were tight, narrow steps up which men might possibly scramble; however, they would then be faced with a frontal attack on position 63. Placing scaling ladders against its sheer stone face at some other point was always a possibility, but, with the defenders able to direct fire downwards on to the decks of the boats, this would surely be a tactic of last resort.

Always assuming they survived for long enough to reach the Mole, a total of six MLs were briefed to put their Commando parties ashore at the slipway, following each other in quick succession and then hauling off to act in accordance with the orders of the Naval Piermaster, Lieutenant Verity, RNVR. Designated Group One, and under the overall command of Captain Bertie Hodgson, these parties, numbering a mere eighty-nine men, had the job of overwhelming all the German defences in and around the Old Town and sealing the area off by blowing up those bridges and lock-gates across the New Entrance by means of which the Germans would surely seek to mount a counter-attack. Should the Commandos succeed in this, then the Old Town area would be protected by water on three sides, and by the Commandos of neighbouring groups on the fourth, making it a secure base from which a successful withdrawal might later be made.

Landing from Platt’s ML 447, the first party ashore was to be Captain David Birney’s Assault Group ‘1F’, a heavily-armed fourteen-man squad whose primary task was to capture and clear the Mole and establish a bridgehead at its landward end. From this commanding position they could then protect the remaining five MLs, initially as they came in to effect their landings, and later as they sought to re-embark troops and return with them to England. A small but important subsidiary task would involve clearing the building containing gun position 62, so that it could be used as an RAP by the two Commando doctors scheduled to land a short time later.

Following close upon the heels of Platt should be the ML of Lieutenant Douglas Briault, carrying Assault Party ‘1E’, a second fourteen-man unit, this time under the command of Bertie Hodgson himself. Also landing would be Captain Mike Barling, the first of the Commando doctors, and two Medical Orderlies, whose job it was to prepare to receive and treat the wounded. Hodgson was to pass through Birney’s bridgehead and move south to capture and secure the long East Jetty of the Avant Port, whose two gun positions, M60 and M61, were able to fire into the flanks of any vessels approaching or leaving the Mole. With the Avant Port secured, his party was then to picket and patrol the built-up area of the Old Town itself.

The way having hopefully been cleared by the assault parties, it would then be the turn of the demolition teams to land. First to come ashore would be Group ‘1C’, landing from Collier’s ML 457 and consisting of Lieutenant Philip Walton’s demolition team and their five-man protection squad under Tiger Watson. Their job was to move quickly west towards target group ‘D’ at the northern end of the New Entrance, where Walton and his party of four would prepare the lifting bridge and lock-gate for demolition, while Watson and his men watched over them like mother hens. In this exposed position the men would be open to attack from several different quarters, despite which demolition could not take place until all the other crossings had been similarly prepared, as all the explosives were to be interconnected and fired simultaneously. In overall charge of the demolitions within this sector was Captain Bill Pritchard who, along with his small Control Party, would land with Walton and Watson.

Next in line, and briefed to demolish the central lock-gate, designated target ‘C’, would be the seven-man team of Captain Bradley, landing from Wallis’s ML 307. This team would operate without a protection squad and was to withdraw to the Mole immediately its work was done. Landing with them would be Captain David Paton, the second of the Commando doctors staffing the RAP; recording every detail for the Exchange Telegraph would be Edward Gilling.

Fifth to land, and carried on board ML 443, should be a cluster of demolition parties charged with destroying the group of buildings comprising target group ‘Z’. Consisting of three small teams under Lieutenants Wilson and Bonvin, and Second-Lieutenant Paul Basset-Wilson, they would blow the Boilerhouse, Impounding Station and Hydraulic Power Station. Landing with them would be their protection party under Lieutenant Joe Houghton. Upon completion of the work all three demolition parties were to withdraw to the protection of Birney’s bridgehead.

BEF in Retreat 1940

Map showing the position of the British, French, Belgian and Germany armies on the evening of 25 May 1940. This was the situation when Lord Gort decided to retreat to Dunkirk, and also when Churchill decided not to evacuate the garrison of Calais.

After the shock of the events of the 20th May 1940, the British forces south of the Somme were in complete disarray. HQ 12th Division and two of its brigade HQs had survived intact but between them they could only locate one battalion of the Queen’s Regiment. Two of its battalions – 4th Buffs and 2/6th East Surreys – were nearby having been halted before they reached Abbeville and another – 6th Royal Sussex – sat in a railway siding south of Amiens. All could easily have been brought back under control had they had any signals equipment, as could the three battalions of 46th Division now cut off from their own HQ and it might have been possible to quickly reform them into a cohesive defence line along the Somme. As it was, the chance was lost simply because they were not aware of each other’s presence. Instead, it was now left to Brigadier Beauman and his Lines of Communication staff to take on the role of managing both the defence and withdrawal of millions of tons of supplies with whatever troops were to hand.

After many delays, the 1st Armoured Division had finally arrived at Cherbourg the previous day, having originally intended to reach the BEF via Le Havre but being diverted because of the bombing of that port. They were even now on their way to Rouen, the tank crews fitting their machine guns to their vehicles as they rolled along on the flat bed railway trucks bringing them north. Until reinforcements could be sent out from England, Beauman needed to gather whatever he could. The arrival of even a poorly equipped battalion like the 2/7th DWR was welcome news.

On arrival, Colonel Taylor reported to HQ 12 Division and was directed to the Nissen huts of 101 POW Camp, set up south-west of the town overlooking the docks where his men finally had the chance to get their first meal for three days and a rest, before being set to work constructing roadblocks as part of Liddel Force, another composite unit manned by local AMPC units and the former patients of the BEF’s VD hospital. Their task was the defence of the coast road into Dieppe itself. For now, though, the Germans seemed content to stay north of the Somme.

By the time the Dukes reached Dieppe, the British Line of Communications forces were beginning to recover as best they could. Also cut off by the German advance and far to the east, the 51st Highland Division was attempting to rejoin them and facing a difficult task. The Division had been deployed in the Ligne de Contact before the Maginot Line at Waldweistroff when the German assault began there on 13 May. The Highlanders had fought well until a general withdrawal had been ordered on the 15th, and on 20 May they were removed from the command of the French Third Army and put in reserve as the first stage of the pre-agreed plan to return them to the main body of the BEF. By the 23rd, the concentration of the Division at Etain was complete, ready for the next stage of a move towards Paris, but before the troops could continue, new orders arrived sending them instead to Varennes, about 30 miles from Verdun. Contrary to the terms of the Anglo-French agreement and without consultation, the Highlanders had been redeployed to the French Second Army who wanted them as a reserve for the fighting around Sedan. Following the new orders, Major-General Fortune arrived at Varennes on 25 May, only to find that six battalions of his men had been sent, without his knowledge, to Rouen instead. Infuriated, Fortune was then informed that it was no longer possible for him to rejoin the BEF and that he and his men would now fall under the command of General Robert Altmayer’s Groupement A, an improvised force later to become the French Tenth Army. They were to be deployed along the line of the Somme and would be in position by 2 June.

As the Highlanders made their way across France, the wavering Gamelin had been replaced by General Maxime Weygand and a plan to counterattack was taking shape. Gort had already set in motion an attack to be launched near Arras to relieve the garrison there and to threaten the German flanks. As this attack went forward, it was hoped that the French V Corps under General Rene Altmayer (brother of the Tenth Army commander), would attack northwards to link up and cut the German lines. Gort, fearful of his army becoming encircled, refused to commit large numbers of his badly needed men and instead sent a force of two reserve divisions – in reality little more than two battalions by now – and 83 tanks. The attack was a success in that it caused the Germans to hold back their lightning advance, now seen as potentially overstretching the force and exposing vulnerable flanks, thus contributing to the infamous ‘stop order’ issued by Hitler that saved the 2/5th West Yorkshires on the 24/25th. The anticipated French attack, however, never materialised. The liaison officer sent to find Altmayer reported that the general, who:

… seemed tired out and thoroughly disheartened, wept silently on his bed. He told me his troops had buggered off. He was ready to accept the consequences of this refusal [to go to Arras] … but he could no longer continue to sacrifice the Army Corps of which he had already lost half.

Despite this, Weygand now proposed a similar scheme, but on a much grander scale. Eight British divisions, supported by the French First Army and Belgian cavalry, would spearhead the attack south to link up with the French armies below the Somme. Weygand spelled out his plan at a meeting at Ypres but Gort was not present. The only officer able to deal in detail with the joint plan was then killed in a traffic accident and the plan was doomed. With a command structure incapable of responding to the speed of the fighting, the collapse of the Belgian Army and the lack of support from his allies, Gort’s confidence in the command and fighting abilities of the latter disappeared. From the highest levels, it seemed, the French authorities had accepted defeat and the fall of France was now inevitable. Despite the British government’s orders to co-operate fully with the French, he decided that the time had come to use his discretionary powers and save the BEF by withdrawing to Dunkirk.

Many in the French High Command, keen to find a scapegoat for the failures of their own staff, chose to portray Gort’s decision to evacuate the BEF as betrayal by ‘perfidious Albion’ and to use it as a bargaining tool as Churchill came under increasing pressure to commit more of Britain’s last line of defence – the RAF’s fighter squadrons – to the battle immediately. French fighter losses had been heavy, but in reality delivery of new aircraft so exceeded their losses that by the end of the fighting, the French air force was actually larger than at the start. These aircraft, however, sat unused far to the south. The need to keep France in the war was urgent, but Churchill had to consider whether the French determination to seemingly defend their country only to the last Briton could be allowed to outweigh the needs of his own people. In France, Fortune and his men would now become the sacrificial gesture needed to prove to France and the world that Britain would support its allies to the end.

As German tanks reached Abbeville, the British 1st Armoured Division under Major-General Evans finally reached Cherbourg. Too late to reach the BEF, the leading elements of the division were rushed forward to Rouen, and on 23 May the Queen’s Bays, one of the three cavalry units forming 2nd Armoured Brigade, received an order to seize bridges across the Somme – ‘Immediate advance of whatever elements of your Division are ready is essential. Action at once may be decisive; tomorrow may be too late.’ Evans was aware of the risk of committing his forces piecemeal into an attack but had no way of contacting GHQ to question the order and no alternative chain of command except to contact Gort via London, a slow, unwieldy process. Pushed into the assault supported by troops supplied from the best battalions Beauman could offer, the Bays fought well but found themselves too thinly spread to achieve any real success.

General Georges decided to use the two British divisions to carry out Weygand’s doomed plan to force a link with the northern group and the BEF. Two armoured brigades – the 2nd comprising the Bays, 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers and 10th Royal Hussars and the 3rd comprising 2nd and 5th Royal Tank Regiment (the 3rd RTR having been diverted to support the defence of Calais) – were hastily formed up. The 2nd, on the right, would be under the command of the French 2nd Cavalry Division and the 3rd on the left under the French 5th Division. Evans argued with the French that his division was not equipped for assault, but for pursuit. He was ignored and on the morning of 27 May, the tanks began to roll forward. Although the Germans had been in position for a full week, no real reconnaissance had been carried out and the 10th Hussars, unable to communicate with the French gunners who had postponed their barrage for one hour, went forward unsupported into a sector supposedly held by lightly armed Germans only to find themselves shot to pieces by heavy and accurate anti-tank fire. Their tanks disabled, the Hussars pushed forward on foot armed with pistols and, in one case, just a crowbar.

To their right, the Bays were caught on an open slope by well concealed guns and lacked the smoke canisters that might have provided some cover. The brigade commander, seeing the hopelessness of the situation, held back the 9th Lancers in reserve. The 3rd Brigade made better progress and advanced towards Abbeville and St Valery-sur-Somme. Having lost eighteen tanks, their commander, Brigadier Crocker, tried to organise a co-ordinated assault with French infantry but the promised support again failed to materialise. The 1st Armoured’s attack ground to a halt with the loss of 65 of its tanks destroyed and another 55 broken down from the long and rushed move forward. It was out of action as a co-ordinated whole. General de Gaulle’s 4th Armoured Division now launched its attack – Weygand’s plan envisaged consecutive, never concurrent, attacks – and took over the assault with its heavier tanks now better aware of the enemy dispositions. Even this was not enough and the Division withdrew.

The disastrous failure of the counterattack at Abbeville was yet another indication of the problems facing the British. Twenty-four hours after the loss of contact with the BEF, word finally reached HQ L of C at Le Mans of the previous day’s events. In near panic, General de Fonblanque issued orders for the immediate removal of all guns north of the Seine and the destruction of any that could not be moved, much to the dismay of Brigadiers Beauman and Shilstone. From the start of the war, the British had been acutely aware of their shortage of weapons. Even before the German attack began, efforts were underway to locate Belgian arsenals with a view to recovering as many anti-aircraft guns as possible if it looked as though the country might be overrun. Perhaps it was with this in mind that the German success in isolating the BEF caused de Fonblanque to consider saving the guns as his top priority; but Brigadier Shilstone, commanding all anti-aircraft defences in the Northern District, chose not to comply, realising that it would leave the vital depots at Rouen and Le Havre completely defenceless in the face of a situation that was, as yet, uncertain. For now, it seemed that the Germans might be held along the line of the Somme, or the Bresle or, at worst, the Seine, but to do so meant developing a co-ordinated plan.

In Britain, General Ironside was made aware of de Fonbalnque’s orders on the evening of the 21st and countermanded them immediately but recognised the evidence of the chaotic conditions prevailing across the Channel. In an attempt to rectify matters, he called on Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Karslake, another victim of Hore-Belisha’s purge in the late 1930s and now in retirement at home. With orders to ‘Get out all you can without alarming the French,’ Karslake sailed the next day armed with a list of priority stores considered essential to Britain’s survival should France fall. The intention was that his arrival would relieve de Fonblanque of the operational management of the Lines of Communication and leave him ‘free to concentrate on the very big administrative problems which will arise’ but when word of the change reached de Fonblanque at 0110hrs on 23 May, he is said to have torn off his insignia in disgust and exclaimed that he might as well serve as a private. After this uncharacteristic outburst, he soon regained his composure and remained in France until sent home at the end of the campaign.

The priority now, Karslake thought, was to put together a scratch defence force to protect the most important depots so that the vital equipment could be removed and evacuated. This force could then also provide a defence line along the rivers to cover the withdrawal of advanced troops should a retreat be necessary. To that end he set about contacting General Georges – still in overall command of the British units – at the HQ of the French Northern Forces. He followed this with a meeting with Beauman at Rouen.

Beauman had already set about the task of establishing a defence force for the L of C, inevitably now called Beauforce. He had passed responsibility for the administrative tasks to his sub-area commanders and was preparing improvised units from infantry base depots and the AMPC. Ironically, these men, largely discounted by Gort and the BEF, were often experienced reservists and better trained than many of their front line compatriots. There was a large cadre of veterans of the First World War who had survived the great ‘Operation Michael’ offensive of 1918 that had almost pushed the BEF into the sea and morale was still high amongst such men. They also had confidence in their commander, who had first led a brigade at the age of 29 and had been one of the youngest generals in the British Army by 1918. He had hoped for better than the treatment he received after the war and, like Karslake, had been retired early. In the current situation he had been given carte blanche by de Fonblanque to do as he saw fit and he had seen in the situation a chance to shine and perhaps to resurrect his military career, so it was a guarded meeting when Karslake first arrived. Karslake, though, was sympathetic and the two men quickly established a good working relationship as Beauman explained his use of the forces available to him to throw a screen north and east of Rouen with its left flank at Dieppe. Karslake agreed and suggested that the screen should be organised on divisional lines.

Karslake also took the opportunity to meet with General Evans of the 1st Armoured and soon realised that the common problem was a sheer lack of information. Immediately he ordered the formation of motorcycle reconnaissance teams under the command of officers from the Royal Tank Regiment to find out exactly where British and French units were and, if possible, German locations too. Without a staff, he made do with the help of only a small number of officers on the ground but managed to complete a detailed report for Ironside by midday on Saturday the 25th. The officer entrusted with delivering this report was taken seriously ill during the flight to the UK so Karslake himself returned that evening, reaching the office of General Ironside at around 2100hrs. There, it was agreed that Beauforce would be formally restructured as a division and two experienced brigadiers recently returned from Norway with knowledge of German tactics would be sent out to work under Beauman as brigade commanders. Karslake, meanwhile, would be given the role of Corps Commander and assume control of all British forces still in France under one unified HQ.

Unfortunately, Ironside was in the process of handing over his post and taking up the command of all Home Forces from Monday 27 May. His replacement, Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill, had returned the day before from a visit to Gort in France and was, presumably, very much aware that the BEF had lost contact with the forces south of the Somme and that French command and control was disintegrating. After the Germans reached the Channel coast, over 140,000 British troops – a number roughly equivalent to that of the entire Allied landing force on D-Day four years later – had been left leaderless. Any communication with Gort had to be sent via London but if Gort had shown little interest in the Lines of Communication before, at least now he had an excuse to be preoccupied. The remaining men were on their own.

Clearly, Ironside’s decision to appoint a single commander to manage the British south of the Somme made sound sense, but for some reason some of the decisions made that evening were never ratified and chief among the orders that were never enacted when Dill took over was that giving Karslake any authority to assume command. Charitably, one might suggest that Dill chose not to follow this plan because he misunderstood the intention and thought it better that Karslake concentrate on the removal of stores rather than combat. Equally, it is possible that he decided to ignore it because he disliked Ironside and, by extension, any potential supporter of Ironside. There is even some evidence that he may have cancelled the order giving Karslake command in the knowledge that his own friend, General Sir Alan Brooke, would be part of the ‘Second BEF’ Churchill was already proposing should be raised and sent to Normandy. If Karslake had command there, Brooke could not be given it. Indeed, one of Brooke’s first actions on arriving in France with the new BEF four days before the final collapse was to order Karslake home – sending the man perhaps best placed to advise him on the situation away within two hours of arriving on French soil and without bothering with any handover briefing.

Whatever the truth, Dill’s decision to cancel Ironside’s orders left the British in France without any centralised command. To compound the problem, Dill then appointed Lieutenant General James Marshall-Cornwall to head No17 British Military Mission with orders to work with the French Army HQ to:

… see every order issued to the British troops, and to report at once to the CIGS if I considered that their survival would be imperilled unnecessarily … [Vice CIGS Lieutenant General Robert] Haining added that it was the Prime Minister’s intention that the British troops should continue to fight to the last extremity in order to give the French no excuse for abandoning the struggle.

Taking up his role on 29 May, he arrived in France on the 31st, completely unaware of Karlsake’s appointment and later complaining that Karslake’s actions in assuming command were ‘injudicious’.

The divisional structure for the Beauman Division had been put in place by 28 May and orders formally raising it were issued by the War Office on the 31st. It is a measure of the confusion Dill had brought with him that the same day he himself ordered its disbandment and the evacuation of its personnel. Karslake was prepared to lose the now redundant HQ 12 Division but was reluctant to see the Beauman Division go. Obliged to comply with Whitehall, he immediately went to General Georges to discuss arrangements. Georges was astonished at the request. Although under no illusions about its origins and weaknesses, Georges pointed out that quite apart from its value in holding its present line, its removal would sent a powerful signal to the French that the British were once again heading for home at the first opportunity. As a result of George’s intervention, Dill reluctantly backed down.

Formally constituted as the first British Army division named after its commander since the Napoleonic wars, Beauman Division consisted of ‘A’ Brigade, (formerly Beauforce) now under the command of Brigadier Green and comprising the 4th Buffs, 2/6th East Surreys, 4th Borders and 1/5th Sherwood Foresters; ‘B’ Brigade (formerly Vickforce) under Brigadier Kent-Lemon and formed around three ‘Provisional Battalions’ – the 1st, 2nd and 3rd but more usually known as ‘Merry’s’, ‘Davies’ and ‘Newcombs’ Rifles respectively. ‘C’ Brigade (formerly Digforce) under Lieutenant-Colonel Diggle was made up of three AMPC battalions – ‘P’, ‘Q’ and ‘R’. To this, he was able to add divisional troops from the three 46th Division battalions stranded south of the Somme and ‘Symes Battalion’. This last was to prove a highly effective example of improvisation, welding soldiers from over 30 different regiments into a single fighting force capable of proving a greater obstacle to the German advance than much of the BEF had managed to accomplish.

Against Beauman and Karslake’s rapid progress in reorganizing the L of C, thus far Dill had managed only to create a system in which General de Fonblanque was in command of the administration of the L of C with Brigadier (now acting Major-General) Beauman commanding the defensive screen and both were answerable to Karlsake who, in turn, answered to General Georges at French Northeastern Command HQ. General Evans, commanding the 1st Armoured Division, was meanwhile answerable to Gort’s GHQ but could only communicate after considerable delay via London as all lines connecting the BEF to the south had been cut and thus was at the mercy of any more senior officer to himself. General Fortune, whose 51st Highland Division were still under French command but working their way back to the British sector from Paris, was answerable to General Ihler of the French IXth Corps but also both Fortune and Ihler were directly under General Altmayer of the French Tenth Army. All were also required to take orders from Whitehall which could conflict with any orders from the French, but would be forced to argue their case whilst agreement between London and General Georges could be met.

In all this, Marshall-Cornwall’s role was ostensibly to act as a liaison officer at Altmayer’s HQ and to co-ordinate British and French efforts but his role owed more to diplomacy than generalship. He reports that he focused his attention on the 51st and 1st Armoured as the ‘only fighting formations’ still in France and dismissed ‘Beauman’s so-called division’ as simply misleading the French into believing it ‘had some fighting value’. This appears not to have simply been a military assessment but a highly personal matter. Beauman writes of having been denied promotion to Major-General because one of his rivals had learned that a member of the selection panel was keen on shooting and so had rented a game lodge where he entertained the panel member for a month. The rival was duly supported by the panel member and promoted. ‘Even if I had been prepared to sink to such tactics,’ Beauman wrote, ‘I could not have afforded them.’ In Marshall-Cornwall’s memoirs, he writes of having added his uncle’s name of Marshall in order to gain an inheritance. He was thus able to rent a mansion near Perth with ‘250 acres of good rough shooting, including a fringe of grouse moor.’ He also notes that this lasted for about two years before ‘I was promoted to the rank of Major-General at the age of 47. This was an early promotion in those days.’ Having gained his colonelcy in 1918 as a result of his staff work in the intelligence field, Marshall-Cornwall felt that this gave him seniority so it is little wonder that Beauman, who ended the war as one of the youngest Brigadier-Generals after leading the 69th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Division during fighting in Italy and before that serving almost continuously as an infantry officer from the outbreak of war, felt that he had been cheated by a technicality – he had not been given sufficient seniority for substantive rank. Throughout his memoir, he refers to Marshall-Cornwall only as the ‘Senior British Officer’ whilst Marshall-Cornwall in turn manages just two passing references to Beauman and in his post campaign report is highly critical of Beauman’s willingness to allow his men to use their initiative. In particular, he notes that Beauman issued orders that his men would be:

… required to give the maximum resistance possible without getting encircled. Orders for your retirement are left to your discretion, but should not be given until the enemy is reasonably near or there is a definite danger of encirclement … This is a very different spirit from Haig’s order of 12 April, 1918: ‘Every position must be held to the last man … With our backs to the wall and, believing in the justice of our cause, each of us must fight to the end.’

Although quickly deciding that the French had lost control of the battle and describing a meeting with Altmayer and the French Commander in Chief Weygand marked by Weygand becoming ‘hysterical’ and ‘screaming’ that positions should be held to the last, with men fighting with their teeth if necessary, it seems odd that Marshall-Cornwall then goes on to criticise Beauman for not taking this same suicidal attitude, especially since he says he was there to avoid British troops being ‘imperilled unnecessarily’ and, in any case, did not regard Beauman’s men as fighting troops. His account is filled with similar apparent contradictions, stating for example, that the 51st Division was ‘not under my orders, but I felt that it was under my wing’ – an odd comment given that he had been sent specifically to guard its interests but perhaps one seemingly calculated to distance himself from the division’s eventual fate. Equally, he wrote to Evans that his own ‘personal feeling and advice to you’ was that Evans must be prepared to sacrifice some of his men ‘to bolster up the French’, even though this would involve Evans deploying his men in ‘an illegitimate role, but I feel this must be accepted.’

For their part, it seems that Generals Beauman, Fortune and Evans had little respect for Marshall-Cornwall or his abilities. Other than brief visits to the front as part of his staff officer duties, Marshall-Cornwall had no combat experience and had never commanded a formation in action. Beauman, for example, describes a ‘stormy interview’ at French Army HQ with Marshall-Cornwall:

This officer had during his service held a long series of staff and military attaché appointments. As a result his knowledge of the handling and management of troops was not based on much personal experience and he appeared to think that they could be moved about like chess pieces regardless of fatigue and the state of their equipment.

After threatening to report Beauman to the War Office, the matter was settled by General Altmayer, who ‘proved much more reasonable’. Marshall-Cornwall himself refers to an incident in which General Evans ‘explained to me forcibly’ that his tanks were in need of maintenance before they could undertake further action – although accepting Evans was ‘right to do so’. It is clear from both his own memoirs and from other accounts at the time that he could contribute little more than an extra level of confusion to the situation and was either powerless or unwilling to countermand French orders for fear of the potential impact on his career rather than his duties to the British troops whose fate he would determine. In his rather self-congratulatory memoirs, he dismisses Karslake as ‘the fifth wheel on the coach’ but, this being the case, he himself became the sixth wheel. What was really needed now was a driver, but that chance had been missed.