Captain William Hoste

Captain William Hoste had a particular distinction in that he was one of those who saw the war through from its first days to its last. He was one of Nelson’s first midshipmen, also at Tenerife, at the Nile, and flamboyantly paraded through Palermo by Emma Hamilton. Just before Trafalgar, Nelson gave him a 36-gun frigate, Amphion. To his everlasting regret, Hoste missed Trafalgar because Nelson sent him on a mission to Algiers. After Trafalgar, Collingwood moved him from one point after another in the Mediterranean, which, by the end of the first decade of the new century, Hoste probably knew better than anyone in the fleet. French activity in Calabria and the menace it represented to Sicily took Hoste into the Adriatic in 1808. Collingwood wanted him there and asked for his return from a brief visit home ‘for he is active, vigilant, and knows the coast, and more depends upon the man than the ship’. In that last phrase Collingwood concisely summarized the character and value of William Hoste.

Battle of Lissa, 13 March 1811 painting by Nicholas Pocock

The re-entry of Austria into the war in 1813 intensified Captain William Hoste, victor of Lissa on 12 March 1811, involvement as the Austrians descended to free Dalmatia and the coast from Trieste to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Cattaro (Kotor). The years of practically uninterrupted activity had begun to tell on Hoste. As his surgeon later said, ‘During the summer of 1813 his health was manifestly declining…yet never was he more actively employed than through the whole of that summer along the Illyrian coast, most of the strong places in which we either reduced alone or assisted others in doing so.’ Then, at the end of the year, Admiral Fremantle ordered Hoste with Bacchante to capture the fortresses of Cattaro and Ragusa.

It was an unprecedented demand, to all appearances unrealistic. Cattaro mounted ninety guns, Ragusa 194. They were mountain strongholds on that high coastline, Cattaro deep inside a difficult inlet. A single 38-gun frigate with its sailors and marines was now required to lay siege to and take both citadels. No such task had ever been laid upon a single ship.

Fremantle refused any support, or was unwilling to give it. There is a suggestion in the journal kept by one of Bacchante’s officers that the enormity of the task was deliberate, perhaps vindictive in its expectation of failure: ‘Sensible of the inadequacy of his own frigate to carry on a siege against two fortresses of the strength of which they possessed, and aware that his commanding officer was alive to that in a greater degree than himself, Captain Hoste requested a body of marines, and some guns and mortars, to carry on the siege, but the admiral refused every assistance. No way daunted by an apparent determination on the part of another to prevent the success of an enterprise which himself was projecting, Captain Hoste quitted his presence with the noble determination to perform to his utmost the duty entrusted to him.’

Malice and envy were steadfastly present in that navy, as Nelson ever experienced. Hoste was always conscious that he had no ‘interest’ to back him when necessary, in promotion especially. ‘Lord Collingwood is my friend, and that is all my chance,’ he had written to his father while Collingwood was alive. With Collingwood gone, he was alone.

The broad understanding of the task was that Hoste should give the Austrians any assistance they needed in taking the fortresses. But the Austrians offered no assistance for Cattaro and Ragusa and showed no move or effort of their own in that direction. It was, therefore, not a matter of assisting them. It was doing the job for them. Here, then, was something like a repetition of the circumstances affecting Nelson in his relations with the Austrians on the Ligurian coast and Genoa in 1796, begging Hotham and Hyde Parker for more frigates, instead seeing some of his force actually withdrawn from him by Hyde Parker. As with Nelson, Hoste found himself entirely alone on his mission. Cattaro was in Montenegro, and upon the Montenegrins, Serbs, he would have to depend for any extra help he needed.

Cattaro became the first objective. Passing Ragusa on his way to Cattaro Hoste encountered a small British scouting force, the armed brig Saracen and two gunboats, which he took under his own orders. Cattaro sat at the head of the great roadstead Bocca di Cattaro, whose fortresses commanded the main approach and had to be subdued. They were garrisoned by Croats and Italians under French officers. Bacchante arrived there on 13 December 1813.

Hoste first sent Bacchante’s boats to an island where four French gunboats lay. The gunboats and the island were already in possession of Serbs who, on appearance of the British ship, threatened to kill the French officer unless he surrendered. Bacchante’s boats therefore brought back the island’s armament of twelve brass guns and a mortar. Hoste, meanwhile, had sent a demand to the Bocca fortress to surrender, which followed quicker than he expected. ‘We have been very fortunate in obtaining possession of it so soon,’ he wrote, ‘for the fort is much stronger than we fancied.’ But the assault on Cattaro was delayed for two months when Hoste was compelled to assist the Austrians at two other coastal operations.

At the end of November he was back at Bocca di Cattaro, to be again refused all assistance by the Adriatic commander in chief, Admiral Fremantle. And ‘on the side of the Austrians none came forward to share in the dangers and difficulties of regaining that territory, of which they intended finally to become possessed’.

On 12 December Hoste was trying to get Bacchante up the difficult course from the roadstead to Cattaro, through the narrow channels and against the strong currents that passed among the islands of the inlet. The ascent was achieved laboriously by alternatively warping and sailing. Once anchored closer to Cattaro, Hoste sailed up the rest of the river in his gig and then ascended to the hills adjacent to Cattaro to reconnoitre its batteries. He decided to form a battery on a mountain, Mount Theodore, that completely commanded Cattaro and its fort. The battery was to consist of two 18-pounders, long guns and two eleven-inch mortars.

The artillery was landed the following morning, 14 December, together with fifty-four officers and men. By dusk the first gun had reached the base of the mountain. More height was gained on the 15th. On the 16th a kedge anchor was buried in rock to help get the gun further. So it continued in cold and heavy rain day after day. A tent was raised under a projecting rock for shelter and stores carried up to it. ‘They have sent me here to take a very strong place without the means of doing it,’ Hoste wrote to his mother on 18 December. ‘However I can but do what lies in my power.’

As the struggle with the gun continued so did the effort to get Bacchante further upstream. Most of the crew being on shore ‘the hands were so few on board that it was to the surprise of all that she could even be got under weigh’. Cattaro had now begun to fire on her continually.

The ascent on Mount Theodore had become a desperate struggle: ‘The weather increased in fury; torrents of rain and gusts of wind, so stormy as at times to disable the men from standing up at their work. Yet the indefatigable little party, with their heavy gun, ceased not their labours through all the hardships of severe seasons; the want of shoes, which were destroyed by the rocky soil; the insufficiency of their machinery to perform so heavy a work–still encouraged by their leader, they increased their exertions, and on the 20th their efforts were rewarded by placing their gun on the summit of the mountain.’ The next day it was mounted in the battery. Through this time Hoste frequently slept on the open mountain in all that weather, so that his health grew steadily worse. Hoste’s first lieutenant, Lilas Hood, in a letter in 1830, recalled that ‘frequently for nights would his clothes remain on him, wet as they were, in a climate either at freezing point, or drenching us all in torrents of rain. How the people stood it, God only knows! And from my heart, I believe, with no other man could they have done what they did.’

Another battery, meanwhile, was built on a less precipitous hill overlooking Cattaro. Altogether four batteries of different strength were created, as well as a point for firing rockets. On 25 December all opened fire together on Cattaro, which had already itself opened constant and heavy fire on the British positions. The assault continued until 2 January 1814, when a party of Montenegrins, who had been assisting Hoste, stood ready to make an assault. Terms of surrender had been sent under flag of truce to the French commander, General Gauthier, who first refused but then decided to discuss them.

A military passenger aboard Bacchante, Captain Angelo, went to Cattaro with the flag of truce. Gauthier complained to him of the use of rockets, and described it as unmilitary. Angelo answered, ‘Do you know with whom you are contending? You are not engaged with soldiers, who do all these things in a regular technical manner: you are opposed to sailors; people who do nothing like other men, and they will astonish you before they have done with you.’

Gauthier surrendered on 5 January. Seamen and marines took possession of Cattaro. Gauthier and his garrison of three hundred were embarked. For the next ten days all the armament and stores were brought on board. The seamen and marines were withdrawn from Cattaro and the town left in the hands of its magistrates. The whole operation had taken Hoste five weeks.

Meanwhile, the Austrians had finally arrived at Bocca di Cattaro. Their general, Metutenovitch, asked Hoste to convey his troops to Cattaro, as he was fearful of being attacked by the Montenegrins. For Hoste, who had himself got no help whatsoever from the Austrians, it was too much. He replied that he had accomplished what he had been asked to do, capture Cattaro, and as soon as he had all his material on board he would sail for Ragusa, his other instructed assignment. Metutenovitch himself then decided to withdraw, being too intimidated by the Montenegrins. For that response Hoste was immediately censured by the British ambassador at Vienna, the Earl of Aberdeen, but particularly for having used the Montenegrins who, instead of the Austrians, were now in possession of the area. To that Hoste also forcefully replied: ‘I wrote repeatedly both to the British admiral and the Austrian general, requesting a force might be sent to support their interests; and to the latter particularly, that he would hasten his march…Notwithstanding this, though General Metutenovitch did advance, it was not till the place had surrendered…I do say that it is entirely their own fault that the Austrians are not at this moment quiet possessors of the province of Cattaro. I could not have acted otherwise than I did; I had no force to garrison the place, and the Bacchante was wanted for other service.’ This forthrightness in defence of actions on a lone, unsupported mission was certainly something that Nelson would have understood.

Bacchante arrived off Ragusa on 19 January. Hoste landed and reconnoitred those points from which a successful attack could be made on this town with its one hundred and fifty guns. He decided to establish three mountain batteries, and the same laborious struggle began to get the guns to their positions, six miles from the landing, passing round the back of the mountain and then up it. On the 27th the guns were placed and ready to open fire on the city when the French asked for truce and then surrendered. At Cattaro Hoste had lost only one seaman, and at Ragusa also only one. Only Nelson at Bastia and Calvi could show anything equal to this achievement of the conquest of the two Dalmatian mountain fortresses.

Admiral Fremantle had only just heard of the fall of Cattaro and the intended assault on Ragusa. And, as the memoir of Hoste’s achievement recounted, the admiral ‘struck with astonishment at the performance of what he had considered wholly impracticable with so small a force, he immediately despatched the Elizabeth frigate, Captain Gower, to assist and to supersede the command of Captain Hoste. Fortunately she only hove in sight while the capitulation was going on; and on Captain Hoste coming down from the town to give up the command, Captain Gower very properly declined to pluck away those glories which he could have no claim to, and the terms were signed by those who had conquered.’ Austria did at least express its gratitude. The emperor sent Hoste the Order of Maria Theresa.

Bacchante returned to a previous station off Corfu. Hoste’s health had deteriorated so badly from exposure at Cattaro and Ragusa that he suffered a rheumatic attack and lost use of both his legs to the point that he could barely stand.

Hoste’s last operation was on 26 March 1814, as the war was drawing to an end in Europe. Bearing up to Corfu harbour to reconnoitre the forces there Bacchante ran on to a mud bank in sight of the harbour. Hoste’s extraordinary career appeared about to end in capture. A French frigate lay off the harbour, likely to come out and get the better of the immovable Bacchante. But Hoste said, ‘Let there be no confusion; if the ship will not back off, take in all sail altogether, that the enemy may not suppose us aground, but to have only anchored for the night, for coolness must be the order of the day.’ The ship was then made to all appearances snug at anchor as every effort was made to get her off.

As Duncan had done at Camperdown, signal flags were intermittently hoisted as if in communication with ships out of sight. Anchors were carried out to try and move the ship, provisions were put aboard Turkish shore boats that were in the vicinity, the pumps worked ceaselessly, and Hoste was seated on a chair from where he supervised operations. Even in the chair, his surgeon said, he seemed scarcely able to overcome his own faintness and weakness. Main deck guns were thrown overboard and everything else done to lighten the ship.

At daylight, with high water, Bacchante floated. Then, a strangely appropriate footnote. A gunboat came out bearing a flag of truce. It was loaded with fruit and vegetables, a present from the governor of Corfu. On board the gunboat was a French army captain and his wife. The captain had come out expressly to thank Hoste for his handsome conduct to his wife when she had found herself a prisoner on Amphion in 1808. Bacchante was, of course, familiar in those waters, along that coast, so her commander was known.

Hoste was too ill to continue. Bacchante took him to Malta to await a ship home. Lilas Hood described the parting at Malta. ‘When it was known to the ship’s company that he was no longer to command them, they appeared to me no longer the same men. The people being about to cheer him, were stopped by me, in consequence of my perceiving his state of agitation on quitting us, until we had, for the last time, lowered him to his boat, when the ship was instantly manned, and I believe no man ever received three more hearty cheers. In a moment, as from sudden impulse, he rose on his legs for the first time in three months, and returned the compliment; then dropping into the arms of the surgeon as if in a fit, was rowed on shore regretted by all.’

Captain William Hoste had a particular distinction in that he was one of those who saw the war through from its first days to its last. He was one of Nelson’s first midshipmen, also at Tenerife, at the Nile, and flamboyantly paraded through Palermo by Emma Hamilton. Just before Trafalgar, Nelson gave him a 36-gun frigate, Amphion. To his everlasting regret, Hoste missed Trafalgar because Nelson sent him on a mission to Algiers. After Trafalgar, Collingwood moved him from one point after another in the Mediterranean, which, by the end of the first decade of the new century, Hoste probably knew better than anyone in the fleet. French activity in Calabria and the menace it represented to Sicily took Hoste into the Adriatic in 1808. Collingwood wanted him there and asked for his return from a brief visit home ‘for he is active, vigilant, and knows the coast, and more depends upon the man than the ship’. In that last phrase Collingwood concisely summarized the character and value of William Hoste.

The re-entry of Austria into the war in 1813 intensified Captain William Hoste, victor of Lissa on 12 March 1811, involvement as the Austrians descended to free Dalmatia and the coast from Trieste to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Cattaro (Kotor). The years of practically uninterrupted activity had begun to tell on Hoste. As his surgeon later said, ‘During the summer of 1813 his health was manifestly declining…yet never was he more actively employed than through the whole of that summer along the Illyrian coast, most of the strong places in which we either reduced alone or assisted others in doing so.’ Then, at the end of the year, Admiral Fremantle ordered Hoste with Bacchante to capture the fortresses of Cattaro and Ragusa.

It was an unprecedented demand, to all appearances unrealistic. Cattaro mounted ninety guns, Ragusa 194. They were mountain strongholds on that high coastline, Cattaro deep inside a difficult inlet. A single 38-gun frigate with its sailors and marines was now required to lay siege to and take both citadels. No such task had ever been laid upon a single ship.

Fremantle refused any support, or was unwilling to give it. There is a suggestion in the journal kept by one of Bacchante’s officers that the enormity of the task was deliberate, perhaps vindictive in its expectation of failure: ‘Sensible of the inadequacy of his own frigate to carry on a siege against two fortresses of the strength of which they possessed, and aware that his commanding officer was alive to that in a greater degree than himself, Captain Hoste requested a body of marines, and some guns and mortars, to carry on the siege, but the admiral refused every assistance. No way daunted by an apparent determination on the part of another to prevent the success of an enterprise which himself was projecting, Captain Hoste quitted his presence with the noble determination to perform to his utmost the duty entrusted to him.’

Malice and envy were steadfastly present in that navy, as Nelson ever experienced. Hoste was always conscious that he had no ‘interest’ to back him when necessary, in promotion especially. ‘Lord Collingwood is my friend, and that is all my chance,’ he had written to his father while Collingwood was alive. With Collingwood gone, he was alone.

The broad understanding of the task was that Hoste should give the Austrians any assistance they needed in taking the fortresses. But the Austrians offered no assistance for Cattaro and Ragusa and showed no move or effort of their own in that direction. It was, therefore, not a matter of assisting them. It was doing the job for them. Here, then, was something like a repetition of the circumstances affecting Nelson in his relations with the Austrians on the Ligurian coast and Genoa in 1796, begging Hotham and Hyde Parker for more frigates, instead seeing some of his force actually withdrawn from him by Hyde Parker. As with Nelson, Hoste found himself entirely alone on his mission. Cattaro was in Montenegro, and upon the Montenegrins, Serbs, he would have to depend for any extra help he needed.

Cattaro became the first objective. Passing Ragusa on his way to Cattaro Hoste encountered a small British scouting force, the armed brig Saracen and two gunboats, which he took under his own orders. Cattaro sat at the head of the great roadstead Bocca di Cattaro, whose fortresses commanded the main approach and had to be subdued. They were garrisoned by Croats and Italians under French officers. Bacchante arrived there on 13 December 1813.

Hoste first sent Bacchante’s boats to an island where four French gunboats lay. The gunboats and the island were already in possession of Serbs who, on appearance of the British ship, threatened to kill the French officer unless he surrendered. Bacchante’s boats therefore brought back the island’s armament of twelve brass guns and a mortar. Hoste, meanwhile, had sent a demand to the Bocca fortress to surrender, which followed quicker than he expected. ‘We have been very fortunate in obtaining possession of it so soon,’ he wrote, ‘for the fort is much stronger than we fancied.’ But the assault on Cattaro was delayed for two months when Hoste was compelled to assist the Austrians at two other coastal operations.

At the end of November he was back at Bocca di Cattaro, to be again refused all assistance by the Adriatic commander in chief, Admiral Fremantle. And ‘on the side of the Austrians none came forward to share in the dangers and difficulties of regaining that territory, of which they intended finally to become possessed’.

On 12 December Hoste was trying to get Bacchante up the difficult course from the roadstead to Cattaro, through the narrow channels and against the strong currents that passed among the islands of the inlet. The ascent was achieved laboriously by alternatively warping and sailing. Once anchored closer to Cattaro, Hoste sailed up the rest of the river in his gig and then ascended to the hills adjacent to Cattaro to reconnoitre its batteries. He decided to form a battery on a mountain, Mount Theodore, that completely commanded Cattaro and its fort. The battery was to consist of two 18-pounders, long guns and two eleven-inch mortars.

The artillery was landed the following morning, 14 December, together with fifty-four officers and men. By dusk the first gun had reached the base of the mountain. More height was gained on the 15th. On the 16th a kedge anchor was buried in rock to help get the gun further. So it continued in cold and heavy rain day after day. A tent was raised under a projecting rock for shelter and stores carried up to it. ‘They have sent me here to take a very strong place without the means of doing it,’ Hoste wrote to his mother on 18 December. ‘However I can but do what lies in my power.’

As the struggle with the gun continued so did the effort to get Bacchante further upstream. Most of the crew being on shore ‘the hands were so few on board that it was to the surprise of all that she could even be got under weigh’. Cattaro had now begun to fire on her continually.

The ascent on Mount Theodore had become a desperate struggle: ‘The weather increased in fury; torrents of rain and gusts of wind, so stormy as at times to disable the men from standing up at their work. Yet the indefatigable little party, with their heavy gun, ceased not their labours through all the hardships of severe seasons; the want of shoes, which were destroyed by the rocky soil; the insufficiency of their machinery to perform so heavy a work–still encouraged by their leader, they increased their exertions, and on the 20th their efforts were rewarded by placing their gun on the summit of the mountain.’ The next day it was mounted in the battery. Through this time Hoste frequently slept on the open mountain in all that weather, so that his health grew steadily worse. Hoste’s first lieutenant, Lilas Hood, in a letter in 1830, recalled that ‘frequently for nights would his clothes remain on him, wet as they were, in a climate either at freezing point, or drenching us all in torrents of rain. How the people stood it, God only knows! And from my heart, I believe, with no other man could they have done what they did.’

Another battery, meanwhile, was built on a less precipitous hill overlooking Cattaro. Altogether four batteries of different strength were created, as well as a point for firing rockets. On 25 December all opened fire together on Cattaro, which had already itself opened constant and heavy fire on the British positions. The assault continued until 2 January 1814, when a party of Montenegrins, who had been assisting Hoste, stood ready to make an assault. Terms of surrender had been sent under flag of truce to the French commander, General Gauthier, who first refused but then decided to discuss them.

A military passenger aboard Bacchante, Captain Angelo, went to Cattaro with the flag of truce. Gauthier complained to him of the use of rockets, and described it as unmilitary. Angelo answered, ‘Do you know with whom you are contending? You are not engaged with soldiers, who do all these things in a regular technical manner: you are opposed to sailors; people who do nothing like other men, and they will astonish you before they have done with you.’

Gauthier surrendered on 5 January. Seamen and marines took possession of Cattaro. Gauthier and his garrison of three hundred were embarked. For the next ten days all the armament and stores were brought on board. The seamen and marines were withdrawn from Cattaro and the town left in the hands of its magistrates. The whole operation had taken Hoste five weeks.

Meanwhile, the Austrians had finally arrived at Bocca di Cattaro. Their general, Metutenovitch, asked Hoste to convey his troops to Cattaro, as he was fearful of being attacked by the Montenegrins. For Hoste, who had himself got no help whatsoever from the Austrians, it was too much. He replied that he had accomplished what he had been asked to do, capture Cattaro, and as soon as he had all his material on board he would sail for Ragusa, his other instructed assignment. Metutenovitch himself then decided to withdraw, being too intimidated by the Montenegrins. For that response Hoste was immediately censured by the British ambassador at Vienna, the Earl of Aberdeen, but particularly for having used the Montenegrins who, instead of the Austrians, were now in possession of the area. To that Hoste also forcefully replied: ‘I wrote repeatedly both to the British admiral and the Austrian general, requesting a force might be sent to support their interests; and to the latter particularly, that he would hasten his march…Notwithstanding this, though General Metutenovitch did advance, it was not till the place had surrendered…I do say that it is entirely their own fault that the Austrians are not at this moment quiet possessors of the province of Cattaro. I could not have acted otherwise than I did; I had no force to garrison the place, and the Bacchante was wanted for other service.’ This forthrightness in defence of actions on a lone, unsupported mission was certainly something that Nelson would have understood.

Bacchante arrived off Ragusa on 19 January. Hoste landed and reconnoitred those points from which a successful attack could be made on this town with its one hundred and fifty guns. He decided to establish three mountain batteries, and the same laborious struggle began to get the guns to their positions, six miles from the landing, passing round the back of the mountain and then up it. On the 27th the guns were placed and ready to open fire on the city when the French asked for truce and then surrendered. At Cattaro Hoste had lost only one seaman, and at Ragusa also only one. Only Nelson at Bastia and Calvi could show anything equal to this achievement of the conquest of the two Dalmatian mountain fortresses.

Admiral Fremantle had only just heard of the fall of Cattaro and the intended assault on Ragusa. And, as the memoir of Hoste’s achievement recounted, the admiral ‘struck with astonishment at the performance of what he had considered wholly impracticable with so small a force, he immediately despatched the Elizabeth frigate, Captain Gower, to assist and to supersede the command of Captain Hoste. Fortunately she only hove in sight while the capitulation was going on; and on Captain Hoste coming down from the town to give up the command, Captain Gower very properly declined to pluck away those glories which he could have no claim to, and the terms were signed by those who had conquered.’ Austria did at least express its gratitude. The emperor sent Hoste the Order of Maria Theresa.

Bacchante returned to a previous station off Corfu. Hoste’s health had deteriorated so badly from exposure at Cattaro and Ragusa that he suffered a rheumatic attack and lost use of both his legs to the point that he could barely stand.

Hoste’s last operation was on 26 March 1814, as the war was drawing to an end in Europe. Bearing up to Corfu harbour to reconnoitre the forces there Bacchante ran on to a mud bank in sight of the harbour. Hoste’s extraordinary career appeared about to end in capture. A French frigate lay off the harbour, likely to come out and get the better of the immovable Bacchante. But Hoste said, ‘Let there be no confusion; if the ship will not back off, take in all sail altogether, that the enemy may not suppose us aground, but to have only anchored for the night, for coolness must be the order of the day.’ The ship was then made to all appearances snug at anchor as every effort was made to get her off.

As Duncan had done at Camperdown, signal flags were intermittently hoisted as if in communication with ships out of sight. Anchors were carried out to try and move the ship, provisions were put aboard Turkish shore boats that were in the vicinity, the pumps worked ceaselessly, and Hoste was seated on a chair from where he supervised operations. Even in the chair, his surgeon said, he seemed scarcely able to overcome his own faintness and weakness. Main deck guns were thrown overboard and everything else done to lighten the ship.

At daylight, with high water, Bacchante floated. Then, a strangely appropriate footnote. A gunboat came out bearing a flag of truce. It was loaded with fruit and vegetables, a present from the governor of Corfu. On board the gunboat was a French army captain and his wife. The captain had come out expressly to thank Hoste for his handsome conduct to his wife when she had found herself a prisoner on Amphion in 1808. Bacchante was, of course, familiar in those waters, along that coast, so her commander was known.

Hoste was too ill to continue. Bacchante took him to Malta to await a ship home. Lilas Hood described the parting at Malta. ‘When it was known to the ship’s company that he was no longer to command them, they appeared to me no longer the same men. The people being about to cheer him, were stopped by me, in consequence of my perceiving his state of agitation on quitting us, until we had, for the last time, lowered him to his boat, when the ship was instantly manned, and I believe no man ever received three more hearty cheers. In a moment, as from sudden impulse, he rose on his legs for the first time in three months, and returned the compliment; then dropping into the arms of the surgeon as if in a fit, was rowed on shore regretted by all.’

Advertisements

First Strike at Truk 1944

Almost two years underway, the war in the Pacific, the Navy’s war, was not yet total. Indeed, some were calling it a phony war. Such a term had been applied to the eight-month period of stasis in Europe between the declaration of war by the Allies and their first major operations on Germany’s Western Front in 1940. In the Pacific, the year 1943 had been, for the Navy, a year of rebuilding and waiting.

The invasion of Guadalcanal, the first Allied offensive of the war, launched in August 1942, had been carried out on a shoestring, using a back-of-the-envelope contingency plan. The six-month campaign of attrition ended in U.S. victory in February, but nine more months would pass before the Marine Corps attacked another Japanese-held island. While General Douglas MacArthur’s troops wore down the Japanese in New Guinea and the Army’s Kiska Task Force retook the Aleutians, the Navy endured an interval of gathering and adjustment, of preparation and planning, recruitment and training, construction and commissioning. Mostly the latter, and the shipyards would tell an epic tale.

The lead ship of the Essex class of aircraft carriers joined the fleet on New Year’s Eve 1942. The 34,000-tonner would emerge as the signature ship of the U.S. Navy’s combat task force. Four more would be launched before 1943 was out. A pair of Iowa-class battleships reached the Pacific that year, too, as four more of the 45,000-ton behemoths took shape in the yards. A horde of new destroyers and destroyer escorts—more than five hundred of them—were launched in the year’s second half alone. But the greatest economies of scale revealed themselves in the building of merchant ships. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had directed the Maritime Commission to produce twenty-four million tons of cargo shipping in 1943. The surge was so great that it might have strained the wine industry’s capacity to make bottles to smash against prows on launching day. Surprising shortages cascaded through the supply chain. When grease was rationed for the exclusive use of combat units, a shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, found a substitute to use in lubricating the skids of their ramps: ripe bananas. Personnel officers, short on applicants, hired women and minorities to work in the yards and looked inland from the traditional recruitment fields of the coasts on the hunch that farmers with wits enough to survive the Dust Bowl might be useful in building ships. Coming out of the Depression, no one missed the chance to earn a better wage.

It was this outpouring of manpower and industry that enabled the Navy’s long-envisioned drive through the Central Pacific to begin. Since 1909, the “Pacific problem” had been an important object of study, premised upon the Navy’s need to retake the Philippines after a Japanese attack. Since 1933, Ernest King had favored a path through the Marianas, which he considered the “key to the Western Pacific.” As commander in chief of the U.S. fleet, based in Washington, Admiral King had been pressing the Joint Chiefs to approve an invasion of the islands ever since the end stages of the Guadalcanal campaign. The size and difficulty of the island objectives seized to date—mere apostrophes of coral with little elevation or terrain—paled next to the Marianas, which lay within what Japan considered its inner defensive perimeter.

In November 1943, as Admiral William F. Halsey’s South Pacific forces attacked Bougainville, Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Central Pacific Force began its oceanic march, falling upon the tiniest and humblest of objectives: Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Gilberts. The sharp, bloody fight was won quickly by the men of the Second Marine Division. The Marshall Islands campaign was next. Spruance took the fleet there in January, delivering the Fourth Marine Division and elements of the Army’s Seventh Division to conquer Kwajalein, an infamous prison island that had been the site of many executions of captured Allied pilots and sailors.

When Nimitz, delighted, asked Spruance for his thoughts about what to do next, Spruance proposed jumping ahead immediately to capture Eniwetok, an anchorage in the western Marshalls. It would be the farthest advance by American forces in the whole war. Spruance said he could do it, but only if the carriers handled an important preliminary matter first. Any ships assaulting Eniwetok, he said, would come within aircraft striking range of the greatest Japanese base in the Central Pacific. Spruance proposed sending the fast carrier task force to strike it. Its name was Truk.

The stronghold had never before been glimpsed, much less attacked. Located in the Caroline Islands, Truk was a massive, multi-island lagoon. Its gigantic outer barrier of coral heads traced a triangle that held eighty-four coral and basaltic islands, most of which were substantial enough to mount antiaircraft artillery. Four of the inner islands had airfields. The lagoon’s harbors and anchorages were deep enough for major warships, and the base’s capacity to support such assets, and its location on the boundary of the Central and South Pacific areas, recommended it as a forward naval base, fleet headquarters, air base, radio communications hub, and supply base as well. From Truk, the Imperial Navy could muster in defense of almost any point on the perimeter of its so-called Southeast Area, all the way into the deep South Pacific.

The question of how finally to deal with Truk would be decided only after Spruance’s raid was over. Two options were on the table. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had approved two offensive paths across the Central Pacific: Either the Navy would assault Truk directly and seize it by June 15, to be followed by landings in the Marianas on September 1; or the Navy would bypass it, leaping straight to the Marianas, with D Day on Saipan set for June 15.

Nimitz thought Truk would have to be taken, but his amphibious planners considered it beyond their means. Truk’s barrier reef was a dangerous obstacle to assault, and its enormous radius kept the inner harbor out of range of naval gunfire from outside. The atoll’s principal islands themselves, Eten, Moen, Param, Fefan, and Dublon, were within mutually supporting range of each other and thus formidable objectives. The more Nimitz and his people looked at it, the less they liked the odds.

On February 12, Spruance and Mitscher led nine aircraft carriers to sea from Majuro, an anchorage in the Marshalls. Their mission was to stick an arm into the hornet’s nest that was Truk and rate the potency of its sting. If the raid, code-named Operational Hailstone, went well, no Japanese planes would remain on Truk to interfere with the landings on Eniwetok. The results would bear, too, on the choice of the next strategic objective.

Though Spruance had a reputation as a battleship man, he had won his greatest fame leading carriers. In June 1942, in the Battle of Midway, he exercised tactical control over the Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown while their aviators destroyed four Japanese carriers. For the loss of the Yorktown, the United States won a victory that would resound in history. Elevated thereafter to serve as Admiral Chester Nimitz’s chief of staff, Spruance commanded a desk at Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t until August 1943 that he returned to sea to command the Central Pacific Force. Its fast carrier element acquired its muscular size nearly coincidentally with Spruance’s rise. It dwarfed in every dimension the carrier group he had led at Midway. The Essex-class carriers were made mighty by their association with an air group of ninety planes, made up of a fighter squadron, a dive-bomber squadron, and a torpedo bomber squadron. By 1944 these squadrons used best-in-class aircraft, the F6F-3 Hellcat, the SB2C-1 Helldiver (or the older SBD-5 Dauntless), and the TBF-1c Avenger, respectively.

The argument about how to employ the Navy’s multiplying roster of carriers—singly, as in the past, or in groups—was settled not so much by persuasion or battle experience as by the surging output of the yards. As far as combat tactics went, the standard assumption that they had to hit, then run, because they were impossible to save against a determined air attack, was yielding to a new reality. Quantity was not merely a luxury but a revolution. By concentrating their aircraft and flak defenses, the carrier task force could hold an air attack at bay. Their planes had radio transponders that enabled specially trained fighter direction teams to recognize them and direct them using long-range search radars. New shipboard combat information centers collated and communicated this critical information. With common doctrine governing the use of combat air patrols, ship formations, and air defense tactics, the carrier task force acquired a flexibility that multiplied its reach and staying power. Several groups of three or four carriers, operating together, could quite well take care of themselves. Approaching Truk, Spruance and Mitscher were about to prove it.

They had arranged their nine carriers in three task groups, each steaming just over the horizon from the next. Spruance flew his three-star flag in the battleship New Jersey, riding in a great circle with the carrier Bunker Hill and the light carriers Monterey and Cowpens. Over the horizon to his north was the group built around the Enterprise, the Yorktown,* and the light carrier Belleau Wood. To his south came the Essex, with the Intrepid and the light carrier Cabot. Deployment in groups allowed concentration or dispersion as a mission might require. Typically the force could be seen in its totality only in an anchorage. At sea, such a spectacle required a few thousand feet of altitude.

Ninety minutes before sunrise on February 16, the fleet closed to within ninety miles of Truk and, on order from Mitscher, as tactical commander of the carriers under Spruance, turned into a force-five wind and began launching planes. One by one, with the release of chocks and the roar of Wright radial engines, a swarm of F6F-3 Hellcats took wing over the spray of onrushing whitecaps.

At the break of morning light, the leaders of each of the five participating fighter squadrons led their flights in a wide turn to the west and circled, allowing the others to join up. After the seventy Hellcats had gathered, they turned out on a heading that would take them west, harbingers of a two-day operation to neutralize Truk as a threat to U.S. ambitions in the Pacific.

The swarm had droned along for less than an hour when their target appeared before them. Illuminated by the sun just above the eastern horizon, it resembled a cluster of mountains contained in a huge coral-fringed tub. Truk’s barrier reef, a round-cornered triangle, encompassed a lagoon. As they came nearer, twelve planes from the Bunker Hill flew high cover at twenty thousand feet, while two divisions of four ranged more widely as scouts. Two dozen Hellcats from the Enterprise and the Yorktown, Mitscher’s flagship, formed the low-attack group. Like-sized contingents from the Intrepid and Essex came in at medium altitude. The boss of the Bunker Hill air group, Commander Roland H. “Brute” Dale, flew separately as the strike coordinator. His job was to make sure the remaining forty-eight planes, his strikers, found the right targets to strafe, assisted by three other air group commanders who served as target observers.

Twelve planes from the Intrepid’s Fighter Squadron Six circled the atoll at a distance, waiting for their high cover to reach its station. A pilot from this group, Lieutenant (j.g.) Alex Vraciu, was mystified to find no Japanese planes in the air to intercept. Little did the U.S. pilots know that the base’s naval commander had just relaxed his guard, a decision that was almost coincident with the arrival of enemy carriers off his shores. For the previous two weeks, Truk had been on high alert, ever since American search planes reconnoitered it on February 4.

Knowing that his pilots were exhausted, Vice Admiral Masami Kobayashi, commander of the Fourth Fleet, had ordered most of them to shore leave in the barracks district located across a causeway from the main airfield at Dublon. The subsequent lapse in air search allowed Spruance to approach Truk undetected and left a sizable portion of the available fighters on the ground when the American swarm arrived overhead before sunrise.

On a fighter sweep, U.S. Navy tactical doctrine boiled down to this: Keep your Hellcats high. Concentrate them in force. Clear out the enemy fighters first. Then get after the airfields. Don’t circle and tarry; it only gives the enemy a chance to scramble. Save for the initial five or so minutes of circling necessary to allow the Hellcats assigned to high cover to take station, this was exactly what Dale and his pilots did, if not necessarily in that order. It wasn’t until Fighting Six was pushing over to strafe that they discovered that some enemy fighters were airborne after all. Pacific Fleet intelligence had estimated that not fewer than seventy-five fighters would be on hand to defend Truk, along with twenty-eight scout bombers, twelve torpedo planes, twelve medium bombers, five large patrol planes, and fifty-eight floatplanes, a total of 190 aircraft. “Not fewer than” proved to be the operative words. The Japanese pilots indeed did in the end get to their planes. U.S. fliers would count more than three hundred of them in the air and on the ground during the day.

As flak puffed the sky around him, Alex Vraciu, with his wingman, Lou Little, found himself in the tail of a spiral of Hellcats bearing down on Moen Island, the site of one of Truk’s principal airfields. Ten Hellcats ahead of him were into their dives when, to be safe, Vraciu looked back over his shoulder. No rookie, he knew the clouds offered nooks and crannies for enemy pilots to use as cover for ambush. His caution likely saved his life. There he saw it at last, the dim form of a Mitsubishi A6M Model Zero, known as a Zeke, diving, its cowling and wings twinkling with gunfire.

Vraciu pulled back his stick, and Little followed him into a climb. Turning sharply toward the enemy plane, Vraciu maneuvered to bring the plane into his gunsight, then fired a burst that forced the pilot to break off and dive. That’s when he noticed the enemy planes above him—a gaggle of dozens that included every model the Japanese flew. The fight was on.

Alex Vraciu was just one among many similarly situated young pilots, full of ambition, in thrall of their tribe, in the grip of their squadron’s logo and mojo and full of stories about the wise old hands who had forged them. He entered pilot training while he was still a senior at Depauw University in Muncie, Indiana. Joining his first squadron at North Island, San Diego, Vraciu was singled out as a talent by the commander, Butch O’Hare, who made the rookie his wingman. The skipper proceeded to hand down the lessons of air combat as they had been taught to him—via the “humiliation squad.”

This powerful pedagogy threw new pilots fresh from training into mock dogfights against a cadre of experienced veterans. As O’Hare had learned from fighter ace legends such as John S. “Jimmie” Thach and Jimmy Flatley, now Vraciu faced his own learning curve. Flying against O’Hare, a Medal of Honor recipient, Vraciu performed well enough to raise eyebrows. And so O’Hare brought him into a new program to develop night fighting tactics. In a “bat team,” a pair of Hellcats flew with a radar-equipped Avenger to hunt enemy planes flying at night. And it was on just such a mission, one night off the Marshalls in November 1943, that O’Hare was killed while defending the Enterprise task group against a night air attack. His loss stoked Vraciu’s Pearl Harbor fever. The desire for revenge became the driving force of his life wearing wings. He was already an ace by the time the carriers reached Truk.

Sizing up the enemy formation, Vraciu knew that he had enough airspeed, about 250 knots, to lose any enemy fighter that latched onto his tail. The fast and sturdy Grumman fighter could outturn a Zeke at high speed. By diving down to gain speed, he could execute a chandelle, pulling up in a steep climbing turn that would cause his pursuer to shoot past him. By making a barrel roll, Vraciu could pounce down on the Zeke as it flew by. Vraciu had him right where he wanted him, this pilot who settled in on his tail.

As Vraciu’s opponent tried to follow him through the chandelle, the Zeke lost its grip on the air and spun out at the top of the turn. Vraciu was lining up a killing deflection shot when he noticed more enemy fighters turning down on him from above. His zeal gave way to prudence. He declined the shot, letting the enemy pilot dive out and escape while he figured out a better way to win.

Vraciu was pleased to find Lou Little faithfully holding on his wing. By scissoring back and forth in opposite interweaving S patterns, he and his wingman made the enemy think better of getting on their tails. Known as the Thach Weave after its creator, Jimmie Thach, the skipper of Fighting Three, the tactic allowed two fighter pilots to cover each other’s vulnerable six o’clock position against more maneuverable aircraft such as the Zeke. In this way Vraciu gradually coaxed the enemy to descend. Once the Japanese yielded the advantage of altitude, Vraciu noted, they seemed to lose their resolve. Gaining the tail of three Zekes in succession, he set them on fire and watched the brown-and-green-mottled aircraft splash into the lagoon. The morning belonged to the Americans. After a sharp ten-minute engagement, Vraciu noticed more than a few Japanese pilots swinging down slowly, suspended from silk. Some of them were still wearing pajamas.

The fighter sweep swarmed over the great atoll, devouring Japanese planes in the air and on the ground. Led by Fighting Six’s exec, Lieutenant G. C. Bullard, Vraciu’s squadron made twelve passes over the strip, burning row upon row of planes. Firing on a Zeke and setting it afire, Teddy Schofield of Fighting Five followed the enemy pilot in a descent toward the airfield on Eten Island. The Japanese flier was probably wounded, for he didn’t square his wheels on touchdown. His plane rolled enough to catch a wingtip on the runway, then started cartwheeling. Turning over and over, the Zeke rolled across a hangar apron, igniting three parked torpedo planes, and as Schofield watched, rooting hard for a few more turns, the Zeke came to rest, a wreck, just short of a big four-engine plane parked at the end of the flight line.

Lieutenant Bullard of the Intrepid was not among the pilots who joined up at the rendezvous area. En route to it, he had spotted a Japanese light cruiser hustling toward the atoll’s northern exit, North Pass. Rallying his division, he led a low-altitude strafing run. A burst of flak from the ship hit his Hellcat, and his engine lost power. Turning out to sea, the pilot descended and slowed, finally easing his fighter into the wave tops and jerking to a halt in an explosion of white spray. As it began to sink, he struggled free of the cockpit. Another pilot dropped a life raft and winged over to occupy the attention of the cruiser and its gunners. Strafing the ship, he set fire to its floatplane as it sat on a catapult. That excitement gave Bullard enough of a diversion to paddle toward a small islet about five and a half miles west of North Pass. He eventually made it, and he spent his considerable free time there spelling his name in rocks for the benefit of his eventual rescuers. Just a few miles away, several Japanese destroyers could be seen, apparently waiting to rendezvous with the light cruiser fleeing the harbor. These ships meant to make a break for it.

Battle of Quiberon Bay I

HMS “Royal George” first rate ship of the line launch at Woolwich in 1756

‘I was in great pain lest the enemy should have escaped you . . . Allow me to add that no man in England can be more pleased with your good fortune, nor more rejoice to see you reap those advantages from it which you so truly merit.’ Admiral Hawke’s letter to his fellow admiral on 14 September 1759, congratulating him on the victory at Lagos, must have been written with clenched teeth, for Hawke thought himself a better man than Boscawen and secretly resented the way his ‘brother’ officer had been given first refusal on the naval command of the expedition that accompanied Wolfe to the St Lawrence, and then been handed the Mediterranean command. In early September Hawke worried away about how he could sustain the close blockade of France’s Atlantic ports. At the moment he and the Admiralty were involved in a wrangle with the naval victuallers. Hawke and Boscawen might be driven by dreams of glory, but the victuallers were entrepreneurs who cared about the bottom line. The new system of supplying warships at sea was hazardous and there was a high wastage and damage rate, which ate into the entrepreneurs’ profit margins. Although Hawke was angry with the victuallers for their lack of patriotism, he realised that, with people outside navy discipline, conflict meant a war he could not win. He therefore issued two orders that in effect were a capitulation to the businessmen’s demands. He ordained that any merchant sustaining damage while loading should issue a certificate for the damages to the ship’s master, which would form the documentary evidence against which compensation would be paid. And he gave strict orders to his captains that they were never to impress seamen in the employment of the victuallers, who had a certificate of ‘protected’ status.

In September, then, Hawke was concerned mainly with the technicalities of continuing his innovation of close blockade. The French, by contrast, had to weigh the consequences of Lagos while still grappling with the implications of inter-service rivalry – that fatal malaise that had led them to assemble an army of invasion in one port and the accompanying fleet of warships in another. They had spent most of the year preparing an invasion force and supporting flotilla, hampered by money shortages, corrupt administrators and agents, and prima-donna admirals and generals, but so painfully protracted was the process that the enemy had had time to blockade the Atlantic ports and even master the art of revictualling at sea. Commodore Boys was patrolling outside Dunkirk, Rodney along the Normandy coast, Duff was watching Morbihan, while Hawke and Hardy hovered off Brest. Lagos was the writing on the wall and on any rational basis the French should now have jettisoned their invasion project. But there was a serious issue of credibility at stake. It was too late now to back down, and to disband d’Aiguillon’s army would be to make a public admission of naval impotence. Besides, the invasion of Britain was supposed to be the master-stroke that would redress the calamitous losses in India, the West Indies and Canada. If this project was abandoned, what was the fallback plan or worst-case scenario? The dreadful truth was that there was none. Not surprisingly then, after Lagos, Choiseul, Belle-Isle and Berryer bent all their energies to thinking up a new stratagem.

The odds against a happy outcome for France were massive, but a naval victory was not totally inconceivable and even one such triumph, followed by the landing of troops in Britain, could lead to an honourable peace. Louis XV and his ministers therefore decided to place all their bets on Admiral Conflans. This gamble was not totally unwarranted. Conflans had had his successes in the War of Austrian Succession and his record in the years 1740–48 was a good one; he had captured two ships of the line, one of them the prestigious Severn finally retaken by Hawke in October 1747. The Minister of Marine had marked him down as a possible star, promoting him from the rank of Lieutenant-General (thus leaving his eight peers behind him) to one of only two Vice-Admirals in 1756 and thence in 1758 to full Admiral, the only one at the top of the French naval tree. In the same year, in recognition of more than fifty valiant years at sea, Conflans received a baton as a Marshal of France, the first naval commander to be so honoured since Admiral Tourville in 1692. Such a promotion was supposed to be a reward for great exploits already achieved. It was an obvious objection to the theory, that Conflans had as yet accomplished nothing, but the marshalship was supposed to act as a morale-boosting fillip to the navy and as a strong hint to Conflans that great things were expected of him. On 26 August Conflans received his formal instructions from Louis XV, which basically enjoined him to get his fleet out of Brest and onto the open sea as soon as possible. Another set of instructions, of which Conflans must have been aware, was issued on the same day to Bigot de Morogues, who was to command a six-ship convoy assembling at Morbihan, which was to act as the escort for d’Aiguillon’s invasion force.

Meanwhile Choiseul continued his unhappy collaboration with Prince Charles Edward Stuart and his representatives. He summoned Murray of Elibank on 2 August for a full-scale dressing-down of the Jacobites and their ‘Bonnie Prince’, mentioning a number of indiscretions committed both by individual supporters of the Stuart prince and by the man himself. Some of the complaints were pointless rants about matters over which Murray had no control anyway, such as the allegedly stupid and brutal behaviour of members of the Irish Brigade in French ports. Choiseul explained that twenty-four million francs had already been spent on the invasion project but that, because of unforeseen difficulties with barges and transports, the expedition was behind schedule. But he advised Murray that d’Aiguillon would soon be leaving for his headquarters in Brittany and suggested that the Stuart prince come to Paris to confer with the commander before he left. Needless to say, Charles Edward ignored the advice and remained sulking in his tent; his only significant action was to write to Belle-Isle to complain that he had heard nothing of French plans and that his ‘friends in England’ were growing impatient. Both France and the Jacobites were exaggerating the strength of their position. Versailles had secretly already decided to take no account of the Prince in its invasion plans, though he did have more drawing power in Scotland than they realised. For his part, the Prince kept up a mantra about ‘his friends in England’, for whose existence no documentary evidence can be found –nor did the Prince provide it to ministers at the time.

When news of Lagos came in, Mackenzie Douglas, always a shrewder reader of the runes than Murray, immediately saw its likely implication: the French might press ahead with the landing in Scotland but they would certainly abandon the descent on the English coast. But, as ever, Charles Edward continued to insist he was not interested in any scheme that did not involve the French landing in England. When this message was conveyed to him, Choiseul immediately assumed that there was a complete lack of interest in the Scottish expedition and therefore asked Murray, presuming that the Prince did not wish to journey to Scotland, to get his master to issue a manifesto, calling on the loyal clans to rise. Murray replied that he was not authorised to make any such declaration; he would have to consult the Prince. Choiseul, wearying of Charles Edward’s dog-in-the-manger attitude (he would not go to Scotland as in 1745 but did not want the French to go there without him either), decided to play him at his own double game. On 7 September he wrote to the Prince to tell him that all previous arrangements were unchanged (he even reiterated the tired old formula ‘everything will be for and with the prince and nothing without him’). But three days later d’Aiguillon received from Louis XV a true statement of Versailles’s attitude to the Jacobites: he was reminded forcibly that he was not to enter into any engagements whatever with the House of Stuart. A subsidiary anonymous memorandum contained the explanation: ‘This prince has not a steady enough head for him to direct an enterprise so momentous or for anyone to direct it when advised by him . . . He is surrounded by very dubious persons of both sex who, it appears likely, betray him at every point.’

On 13 September, the day Wolfe was winning glory on the Plains of Abraham, Belle-Isle wrote to d’Aiguillon with further, more detailed instructions. After making landfall at Glasgow, d’Aiguillon was to march to Edinburgh and make that city his principal base of operations. Once safely ensconced in Scotland, a second army under Soubise would follow (it is perhaps significant that Belle-Isle did not spell out whether Soubise’s army was still destined for England or had been switched to Scotland as the second wave). There are even hints in the letter that Belle-Isle was not entirely happy with the vanquished General of Rossbach being given such an important role, but both he and d’Aiguillon knew that Soubise was a puppet whose strings were pulled by La Pompadour. Two days later a personal letter from Louis XV, countersigned by Berryer, was delivered to Bigot de Morogues, captaining the Magnifique. He was ordered to take d’Aiguillon’s force to the west of Scotland, having first circumnavigated Ireland, to make landfall at Irvine on the Clyde. After conferring with local pilots and fishermen, Bigot de Morogues was to decide the exact spot for disembarking troops, always of course in consultation with d’Aiguillon. If for any reason a landing was not practicable, he was to sail round the north coast of Scotland to make another landfall on the east coast, where the army would be disembarked. In case of a major setback, he was to burn his ships and proceed to dry land to serve under d’Aiguillon. Both memoranda were long on daring strategic vision but short on practical detail. The cynical conclusion would be that they were both textbook examples of vagueness, where nothing had really been thought through and everything left to chance. Micawberism as military planning would be a good title for the two documents.

The vain and self-regarding Conflans exploded when he heard of these memoranda. If Bigot de Morogues was given such an independent command, this would mean that his battle fleet would lose six men-of-war and, in his opinion, the French squadron even at full strength was no match for the Royal Navy.

Moreover, without those six ships, the balance of power shifted subtly in favour of the army, so that in any joint enterprise d’Aiguillon, and not the Marshal-Admiral, would be the senior partner.

Conflans bombarded Choiseul, Belle-Isle and Berryer with letters of protest, revealing himself a true prima donna and principal player in the inter-service rivalry stakes. Choiseul and Belle-Isle were in a dilemma. They had, so to speak, put all their eggs in the Conflans basket, and so to repudiate him or fail to give him what he wanted quite obviously would jeopardise the entire enterprise. Conflans was confirmed as the supreme leader of the expedition, with Bigot de Morogues firmly under his command; there would be a united fleet and no separate naval support for d’Aiguillon. But since Conflans now had to engage the blockading British and escort d’Aiguillon’s army, the ministers had to think up some ingenious way of squaring the circle. They came up with the lame suggestion that Conflans must attack the blockading squadrons but that, after that, it would be left to his discretion whether he kept to sea or returned to Brest, ready to make a fresh sortie when the Morbihan flotilla was ready. It was thought so important to keep Conflans sweet that on 14 October Louis wrote to his Marshal-Admiral, modifying his earlier (26 August) orders at the Admiral’s request. So much for Bourbon absolutism. Tactful and almost deferential, the King reassured Conflans and reminded him that the paramount objective was the safety of the Morbihan flotilla. Louis included a Parthian shot by saying that, if Conflans were to accompany d’Aiguillon instead of Bigot de Morogues, he must then either go the whole way with him to Scotland or detach six warships (plus some frigates and corvettes) to convey the flotilla to safe anchorage in Scotland.

Meanwhile at Dunkirk a subsidiary expedition under the famous corsair François Thurot was being assembled. A protégé of Belle-Isle, Thurot had won a great reputation as an intrepid privateer. In 1757, in his flagship the Maréchal de Belle-Isle, named for his protector, and commanding a small group of frigates he had harried British commerce on the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the Baltic, perfecting the technique of never staying long enough in any one area to be tracked down by the Royal Navy. Sweeping in huge arcs from Lough Swilly in Ireland to Bergen in Norway and the Faeroe Islands, Thurot took many prizes and severely disrupted trade between Liverpool and North America. His success in 1758, when France was on the retreat in most theatres in the world, determined Belle-Isle to use him in the great 1759 invasion project. Lionised at Versailles, where he was received by Louis XV and became a great hit with the ladies, Thurot was in 1759 at the very peak of his achievement and reputation. Belle-Isle’s idea was to employ him on a feint to Ireland that would keep the enemy guessing and that could bring him and his financial backers great riches. The conquistadores had gone to the New World to serve God and grow rich; Thurot, a latterday conquistador, aimed to serve France and grow rich.

Thurot raised the capital for his venture in an early example of public-private initiative, securing 500,000 livres from Berryer as the state’s contribution and attracting large amounts of capital from private investors and banks in Paris, St Malo, Boulogne and Dunkirk. Apart from the forty-four-gun flagship, his flotilla contained the thirty-eight-gun Begon, the twenty-four-gun Terpsichore and the eighteen-gun Amaranthe, as well as a small cutter, the Faucon. Meanwhile 1,500 troops were earmarked for the Irish venture, under the command of Brigadier Flobert. Unfortunately, right from the start Thurot and Flobert did not get on. Flobert despised the great corsair for his humble origins and resented having to be under his command. When Belle-Isle realised that there was bad blood between them, he should immediately have replaced Flobert; instead, for reasons unknown, he simply decided that the two men should exchange copies of their written instructions. It was pellucidly clear from Louis XV’s orders that Thurot was to be the unquestioned leader. But Flobert was not Thurot’s only problem. The long wait at Dunkirk ate into his financial reserves and soon his creditors began clamouring for their money. It was only when the Prince de Soubise wrote a letter pledging payment of any debts incurred by Thurot that a Dunkirk merchant withdrew his threat to impound the Maréchal de Belle-Isle as surety for unpaid bills.

By the summer of 1759 Louis XV had another of his changes of mind. He decided to reinstate Soubise as commander of an expedition to England, and gave Chevert a consolation prize by making him Intendant of Dunkirk; there, if it was thought necessary to reinstate the Maldon coup de main, Chevert would be on hand. Now aged sixty-four, General François Chevert was, like Thurot, a man of no ‘birth’, the bravest of the brave and the toughest of the tough. Old enough to be Thurot’s father (Thurot was just thirty-three in 1759), he was a good choice to liaise with the privateer and make straight his ways. Chevert was given the difficult task of ensuring that none of Thurot’s creditors prevented him from leaving Dunkirk, while not appearing to flout the spirit of the law. When pressed hard by a Thurot creditor named Tugghe, Chevert passed the buck to Belle-Isle, who ‘leaned on’ the merchant as only an ancien régime grandee could, telling Tugghe he should waive his claims for the time being, ‘it being very detrimental that Thurot’s departure should be held up for any reason other than the winds’. Unfortunately, by the time Thurot was finally ready to sail, on 6 September, the British blockading squadron was in place outside Dunkirk, with Commodore Boys having three men-of-war, thirteen frigates and seven cutters on station outside the port. As a consequence Thurot’s fleet sat idle in Dunkirk Roads, waiting for favourable winds, while all the time the embarked soldiers languished and fell sick in their cramped bunks aboard ship. By the end of September Chevert told Thurot that if the fleet did not get away soon, the troops would have to be brought ashore. As it was, when Thurot did get the chance to sail at a moment’s notice, he had to leave 360 of his troops behind.

The contrast between the bickering, indecision, negativity and self-destructive impulses of the French and the aplomb of the British in the autumn of 1759 can hardly be over-stated. Between 21 August and 22 October the bellringers at York Minster were paid four times for celebrating victories, beginning with Minden and ending with Quebec. If anything, the British were over-confident. Pitt, animated by Minden, wanted to send 10,000 new troops to Europe and ostentatiously refused to be distracted from his objectives in Europe and North America by the French invasion threat. The Duke of Newcastle, who always fumed and fretted whenever an invasion threat from France loomed, thought Pitt rash to the point of folly and his words to his crony Earl Hardwicke on 25 October, reporting Pitt’s triumph with the news of Quebec, do not sound entirely happy: ‘No one will have a majority at present against Mr Pitt. No man will, in the present conjuncture, set his face against Mr Pitt in the House of Commons.’ Pitt’s argument, made again and again to a sceptical Newcastle, was that the habit of being mesmerised by French invasion threats was precisely what had led to the absurdly defensive strategy in 1756 and hence the loss of Minorca. The situation was utterly unlike that in 1745–46, both as regards the Jacobites and North America. In the War of Austrian Succession Britain had to abandon the conquest of Canada after taking Louisbourg, because the French hit back by invading the Low Countries. This time they did not have to worry about French designs on the Low Countries, precisely because of the reversal of alliances.

Hawke was still on ceaseless patrol outside Brest. Having perfected the technique of revictualling at sea, he was now mainly concerned with maintaining the health of his 14,000 sailors and, in particular, preventing scurvy. His correspondence with the Admiralty is full of references to beer, bread and fresh meat. Although the importance of vitamin C was not yet appreciated, the sailors’ improved diet just enabled them to scrape by without contracting the dread disease. Although vegetables sometimes featured in the ships’ menus, the all-important greens and citrus fruit did not; ironically apples, low in scorbutic acid, were plentifully supplied. Some have speculated that Hawke’s personal hygiene-mania helped to ward off typhus, but whether the ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ ethos of the Admiral percolated to the lower decks must be considered doubtful. But it is clear that Hawke had to battle throughout his blockade with dishonest provisioners and peculating officials: there are frequent complaints about the shortage of cheese and, especially, about poor-quality beer – often so bad that ships’ captains simply ordered it thrown overboard. Bread was another problem: sometimes loaves were found to be crawling with weevils and maggots and thus threatening to contaminate all the good bread. Although the Admiralty responded to Hawke’s complaints about the beer by ordering wine to replace it, they could do little to prevent swindling contractors supplying stinking and brackish water, and since it was customary on board to mix Guernsey wine with water, Hawke often found himself back at square one in terms of providing his men with a decent beverage.

By September the Royal Navy’s efforts had shifted away from bottling up Conflans’s warships to finding and destroying the transports. On 26 August, Hawke announced this new bearing in policy (explicitly mandated by the Admiralty) when he ordered Reynolds to cruise between Port Louis and Nantes and attempt to destroy the French flat-bottoms and other troop carriers; he was not to get diverted into chasing enemy cruisers. Reynolds began by blocakading Nantes with a ship of the line and twelve cruisers. Evidently Reynolds did not act with the élan Hawke required, for in mid-September we find the Admiral proposing that Reynolds come under Duff’s command. But before this change could be implemented, Reynolds reported that he was in pursuit of the Nantes transports, which had emerged from the Loire and given him the slip and, accompanied by three frigates, were sailing north to join the troopships at Vannes. Hotly pursued, the French found refuge at Auray, where Reynolds could not pursue them. Both Auray and Vannes were secure havens for Morbihan, an extensive inlet on the north-east side of Quiberon Bay, which was indented by shoals and islets, and led to Vannes and Auray by a series of narrow, twisting channels. To penetrate this labyrinth required the services of expert pilots, and none was available to the British.

Duff meanwhile arrived at the entrance to Morbihan on 22 September and conferred with Reynolds. Together they and other captains landed on the island of Meaban at the entrance to the Morbihan gulf and climbed to an eminence from where there was a clear view of the Auray river. Having viewed the maze for himself, Duff made the obvious conclusion that the Royal Navy could not harm the transports where they were; on the other hand, he could not see how the French could ever sortie from their fastnesses onto the open ocean. Duff therefore left most of his squadron in Quiberon Bay to watch the French flotilla and took up station in the Rochester with some frigates off the Île de Croix, where he could bottle up St Louis.

Battle of Quiberon Bay II

There was good news from other theatres. Although Rodney’s attack on flat-bottoms in September had to be called off because of high seas, which threatened to smash his ships onto the coast, the endeavour confirmed his opinion that flat-bottoms could operate only on a millpond sea, and as autumn wore on there would be fewer and fewer of those. Then, at the end of September, Commodore Hervey directed a daring boat attack close to the entry of Brest harbour, engaged four ships in Camaret Bay and captured a schooner. The blockade was hurting the French badly, as they later admitted. Even at the simplest level, their matelots were cooped up in inaction and inertia while constant vigilance meanwhile kept Royal Navy crews at a high pitch of readiness.

One of the crosses Hawke had to bear was that the Admiralty constantly nagged him and tried to micro-manage his blockade, forcing him to pile up a mountain of paperwork in which he justified his every action. The Lords of the Admiralty put a negative ‘spin’ on Hawke’s demands by giving out that he required a superiority in capital ships before he would take decisive action against the French. Anson and Hawke were particularly at odds over the putative threat from Bompart’s West Indies squadron. Hawke’s only concern was that this might try to reinforce Conflans at Brest, possibly catching the Royal Navy between two fires, but he felt confident enough to intercept Bompart if he made for Rochefort without breaking stride on the blockade of France’s northwest coast. Anson, though, was adamant that Hawke had to have local superiority at Brest, and instructed him (with some asperity) that if Bompart did not interfere with the blockade and headed straight for Rochefort, Hawke should ignore him. Reluctantly accepting these orders, but hoping to make a virtue of necessity, Hawke decided to forget about Rochefort altogether and transferred Geary’s squadron there to the Brest theatre, to reinforce his local superiority. In Hawke’s opinion, the entire Admiralty brouhaha about Bompart was a storm in a teacup since, to move from the metaphorical to the actual realm, the hurricane season in the Caribbean (August–September) meant it was extremely unlikely that Bompart would soon sail for France anyway.

October saw the pace of French preparations quickening, especially when the Due d’Aiguillon arrived at his command headquarters at the Jesuit seminary in Vannes. Conflans had a golden opportunity to clear from Brest in mid-October when ferocious storms battered the Royal Navy. Reynolds, on surveillance at Île de Croix, was forced to rejoin Duff at Quiberon Bay when heavy gales blowing continuously from 11 to 14 October obliged his ships to strike topgallant masts. The united force contemplated an attack on the transports in the River Auray as a way to turn the storms to immediate advantage, but a council of war on the Rochester on 15 October concluded that an attack on the Morbihan transports was far too dangerous, especially as the Achilles struck a rock and was nearly wrecked; treacherous or venal pilots were blamed for the mishap. Off Ushant, Hervey was buffeted by heavy gales from the south-west, which swept in on a long heavy swell. Forced back to the Lizard peninsula, he was however able to return to Ushant when the weather moderated and to report that there was still nothing stirring at Brest. Hawke, aware that his men were weary after six months’ cruising in unpleasant waters, raised the blockade of Brest and returned to Plymouth, where he took the opportunity to lay in a three-month supply of fresh water. Normally the onset of winter meant an end to naval campaigning, and Hawke might have been confident that Conflans would not put to sea in such weather. But these were not normal times and nothing could be taken for granted.

Ominously, when Boys was driven off station at Dunkirk by a violent gale on 15 October, Thurot took the opportunity to escape with five frigates and 1,100 men. It was perhaps fortunate for Britain that he was detained by bad weather in Gothenburg and then again at Bergen.

Since for five days (15–20 October) there were no significant forces investing the French Atlantic ports, why did Conflans not put to sea, pick up the transports and proceed to Scotland, especially as he had just received a direct order from Louis XV to counterattack the blockade at Brest and Morbihan? Conflans, though, was no seafaring buccaneer in the Nelson or John Paul Jones mould, but a by-the-book plodding precisian. He was still bombarding the Ministry of Marine with requisitions, refusing to put to sea until he was completely crewed and victualled. He pointed out that provisioning was a particular problem, since storeships destined for Brest had been driven by the Royal Navy into Quimper and the victuals then had to be unloaded and trundled for 100 miles over very bad roads to Brest. On 7 November Conflans wrote a letter to Berryer that positively drips with sarcasm: ‘I see neither money nor ship’s timber nor workers nor provisions. I am sure you made arrangements to deal with all these contingencies.’ To an extent one can sympathise with him. The horse transports had been rotting away in the roads for the past three years and the battleships were not ready for action, except for the occasional star like the eighty-cannon Soleil Royal – state-of-the art warship and pride of the French navy. But Conflans was not just short of supplies and stores. Manpower was an even bigger headache, with Captain Guébriant of the Orient complaining that he had only thirty good seamen in his entire ship. It was all very well to press raw recruits, but they were incompetent at carrying out the complex battle manoeuvres necessary in any meaningful engagement with Hawke. Whatever the excellence of Conflans’s reasons for delay, the King and the ministers at Versailles were tearing their hair out. Infuriated with Conflans, Choiseul tried to encourage d’Aiguillon by mendaciously assuring him in October that Sweden was secretly with France and was only waiting for the French landing in Scotland to show its hand and declare war on Britain.

The weather ‘window’ passed, and on 20 October Hawke resumed his station off Brest. His confidence was rising daily, especially when he learned that Conflans’s ships were still nowhere near ready to come out, as all their topmasts and topgallants were still down. He also heard from Duff that, although there were now five regiments at Auray and eight at Vannes, all sixty vessels there had their sails unbent. Hawke had recently received reinforcements from Boscawen’s fleet, and was particularly pleased to be joined by Captain Sir John Bentley, a veteran of both battles of Finisterre in 1747, a fleet captain in the Royal Navy, and recently knighted for his sterling performance at Lagos. The only irritant was that the Admiralty had now changed its mind on the Bompart squadron. It turned out that after all they did want Hawke to intercept it, so he suggested sending Geary back to Rochefort to do the job. Confident that his advice would be accepted Hawke sent Geary on his way, only to be forced to recall him when the Admiralty lords, possibly heeding Bocsawen, who thought Geary was an idiot (‘a stupid fellow’), ordered Hawke to do so and suggested that he was not keeping the principal objectives (the blockades of Brest and Morbihan) clearly enough in the forefront of his mind. Hawke might have been justified in asking the noble lords whether the information about Bompart was meant to be taken at some metaphysical level only.

From the beginning of November it was the wind and waves rather than the tactical acumen of the rival naval commanders that determined the progress of the campaign. The volatility of the weather can be tracked in wind direction and velocity: westerly at the end of October, the wind then blew from the south-south-east on 1–2 November, from the south-southwest on the 3rd, from the south-west on the 4th and from the north-northwest on the 5th, when it began blowing a full gale. By this time Conflans was being deluged with urgent messages from Versailles, and Choiseul especially, demanding that at least the d’Aiguillon part of the invasion should be attempted, with Conflans picking up the transports at Morbihan before clearing for Scotland via the west coast of Ireland. Having evaded Hawke, Conflans was to blast passage through Duff’s blockading squadron off Morbihan; if a general engagement became necessary, Louis XV would accept the risk. The Admiralty’s spies intercepted Choiseul’s latest letter and the order went out from Anson that all ships should converge at Brest for a general engagement. These orders reached Hawke on 5 November, just as the sea began making up alarmingly. On the very same day Conflans wrote to Minister of Marine Berryer that he was determined not to abort the invasion project but would try to avoid a general engagement at sea. Naturally, if caught he would fight hard and acquit himself well, but the evasion of Hawke by stealth remained the prime objective. Conflans’s critics allege that this determination to avoid battle finally became an obsession, with disastrous results.

The bitter westerly gale of the 5th became a ferocious storm by the night of 6–7 November. Hawke’s fleet was battered mercilessly by heavy squalls of wind and rain as it tried unsuccessfully to work to the westward. As the wind backed gradually from northerly to westerly, the damage to the ships increased inexorably, with split sails and damaged masts. Topgallant yards were got down and topsails close-reefed, but the heavy western swell bore the armada increasingly off station. On the morning of the 7th Hawke reluctantly gave up the unequal struggle and bore away for Torbay. Duff and the cruisers were left to watch Brest and to send a frigate to Torbay if Conflans sortied. Later the very same day the winds of storm that had sent Hawke back to England brought Bompart’s squadron from the West Indies into Brest. Here was serendipity. Not only did Bompart learn from an unimpeachable source that Hawke’s fleet was no longer blockading, but Conflans’s crewing problems were solved at a stroke: although Bompart’s vessels were no longer battle-worthy, he simply transferred the seasoned crews and the supplies and matériel to his own battle fleet. But the French wrongly concluded that Hawke had returned to England for the winter. Had the Duke of Newcastle had his way, this would indeed have been the outcome. Afraid that the fleet would sustain severe damage if it had to struggle further with the winter storms, Newcastle strongly counselled the path of discretion. But, after some warm exchanges of opinion, Pitt, adamant that Hawke must put to sea again, had his way.

In Torbay, Hawke chafed in inactivity and frustration. Although a period of rest and recuperation was necessary for the storm-tossed ships, many of which had suffered badly split sails, Hawke worried that this lull might play straight into Conflans’s hands. But the hard gales of 10–11 November meant that getting out to sea was not possible. On the 12th the wind moderated, and Hawke momentarily hoped he could return to station. He cleared with nineteen men-of-war and two frigates, but he was barely into the Channel before the wind speed and wave height increased steeply. Faced with a south-west gale and a heavy swell, and with the warships again suffering split sails while not even out of sight of land, Hawke hung on grimly until the morning of the 13th when the savage state of the foam-flecked seas forced him to return to Torbay. At least there was some consolation, for Admiral Saunders and the Quebec fleet arrived back in England after a perilous Atlantic crossing. After his heroic work on the St Lawrence, Saunders would have been justified in taking leave, but he immediately volunteered himself and his ships for Hawke’s service. The British Quebec fleet for the French West Indian one, Saunders for Bompart: truly all paths now seemed to be leading to Quiberon Bay. There was a general sense of anticipation in the air as Anson rushed additional workmen to Portsmouth and Plymouth to get every available warship ready for seagoing.

It was not until 14 November that the storms abated sufficiently to allow the first of Hawke’s fleet to put to sea; many did not get away until the 19th. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and those of his sailors, whose morale, diet and health he had worked on so assiduously. Perhaps his only worry was that he had not been able to achieve a systematic charting of the French coast, so that he did not have an accurate picture of the reefs, shoals, fathom soundings, tides, anchorage grounds and batteries in all the Atlantic locations. Even as he toiled down the Channel towards Ushant on the 16th, Hawke met four victualling boats, whose captains informed him that Conflans had emerged from Brest on the 14th and the day before had been just sixty miles from Belle-Île, the large island off the coast of the Quiberon peninsula. Since it was obvious that the Admiral-Marshal was heading for Morbihan, Hawke sent fast cutters to all his captains to alert them that the prey was afoot. He wrote to the Admiralty: ‘I have carried a press of sail all night with a hard gale at S.S.W. and make no doubt of coming up with them at sea or in Quiberon Bay.’ The timorous Duke of Newcastle, who earlier glumly concluded that nothing could now prevent a French invasion – though he thought it was aimed at Ireland – wrote ecstatically to the Duke of Bedford: ‘It is thought almost impossible that M. Conflans should escape from Sir Edward Hawke . . . As to fighting him, which is given out by the French, my lord Anson treats that as the idlest of notions.’

Once he cleared from Brest, Conflans stood away to Morbihan on a north-west breeze; he was just over 100 miles from his destination and had a 200-mile lead over Hawke. In his fleet were twenty-one ships of the line in three divisions, under Budes de Guébriant, St André du Verger and the Chevalier de Bauffremont; but, fatally, there were just five cruisers to watch for enemy movements. By midday on 16 November Conflans was halfway from his target, about sixty-nine miles west of Belle-Île. But that afternoon the wind blew in fiercely from the east and built up into a gale, with heavy, breaking seas. Forced to run before the wind, and unable to stop until they were 120 miles west of Belle-Île, the French in effect lost three days to the storm, being exactly in the same position three days later. It was only on the 18th that Conflans could start reaching back, and even then not on a true course. The wind had settled in the north-north-east, which meant that to make easting he had to stand away far to the south. When the breeze died away on the afternoon of the 19th, he found himself becalmed about seventy miles south-west of Belle-Île. Incredibly, he was no nearer his destination than when he had been spotted by the British victualling ships on the 15th. Conflans has been bitterly criticised for his tardy performance but, although his crews may not have been as skilful as Hawke’s, the adverse weather explains most of the delay. Some poor seamanship there may have been, but Hawke did not clock up a much better mileage with a superior fleet.

It was not until nearly midnight that the wind sprang up again, now blowing from the west-north-west. From having been becalmed, Conflans was soon once again exposed to the fury of a gale. The seas were so high that he dared not approach close to land, even though he had issued orders late on the 19th to prepare for landing at Morbihan the next day. He signalled to his ships to proceed under short canvas, to ensure they did not reach land before dawn.

Compelled to reef all sails to prevent his being driven onto the shore, Conflans lolled perilously on the waves, hove to about twenty-one miles west of Belle-Île and there, at daybreak, Duff’s five-ship patrol spotted them. The French had no difficulty in chasing off the patrol, but now the secret of their position was out. Fortune meanwhile had smiled on Hawke. At first the winds drove his fleet westward, but on 18–19 November, though variable, they were more favourable, so Hawke followed a south-easterly track. By now he was running parallel with Conflans on a north-north-east wind and got to within seventy miles of Belle-Île before the following wind ceased. By noon on the 19th he found himself beset by heavy squalls from the south-east, west by north of the island, flying double-reefed topsails. The gale that hit Conflans at midnight reached Hawke five hours earlier, so that at 7 p.m. he signalled the fleet to send up topgallant masts, shake out reefs and make for Morbihan under a press of sail. The night, which began with light south-westerly breezes and fine weather, ended with gale-force westerly winds, together with cloudy skies and heavy squalls. He held on until 3 a.m while Conflans was hove to, but was then forced to lie to until 7 a.m. with topsails backed. At dawn on the 20th Hawke was forty miles west by north of Belle-Île.

If there was a hero on the morning of 20 November it was surely Commodore Duff. There was nearly a disastrous breakdown in communication between him and Hawke, as the Admiral had sent a Lieutenant Stewart on the sloop Fortune to liaise with Duff, but Stewart reprehensibly got sidetracked into an attack on a French frigate. Only apprised at 3 p.m. on the 19th that Conflans was at sea, by superb seamanship Duff got his ships out to the open ocean. He discovered Conflans at dawn on the 20th and then led the French a dance back towards Hawke’s fleet. When Conflans saw Duff’s squadron, he ordered a general chase, with all ships cleared for action. Duff divided his squadron and stood inshore, sending half of his ships south and the other half north, hoping the French would disperse. Conflans took the bait and divided his force in three: the vanguard and centre were to pursue the two detachments of British frigates separately while the rearguard marked time and identified some strange sails just starting to appear on the seaward horizon. The French fleet was becoming badly scattered in the pursuit of Duff’s vessels when they suddenly changed tack and veered off. To his horror, Conflans was now aware of Hawke’s presence and frantically signalled to his own ships to abandon the pursuit of Duff and close up on the flagship. Hawke already had his ships in line of battle, all abreast ‘at the distance of two cables asunder’, and, seeing that the enemy was not in battle formation, immediately signalled a general chase. By noon the vanguard of the chasing Royal Navy vessels were just nine miles west of Belle-Île on a northerly bearing.

By now Conflans had signalled to his fleet to make for the entrance to Quiberon Bay in single file. For this decision he has been much criticised, especially by his own countrymen, and it is true that by this time he had allowed himself to be psychologically intimidated by Hawke, to the point where he feared the very thought of a sea battle, even though he was little inferior in numbers. His motives, as he later explained them, were threefold. He feared that he was no match for Hawke in the open sea on a lee shore in bad weather. Secondly, he thought that if he got all his ships inside Quiberon Bay before the British could enter, he could haul to the wind, form battle line on the weather side of the bay and thus redress his numerical superiority. Hawke would then be put in the tricky position of having to decide whether to come in close and risk the myriad shoals and reefs. Thirdly, Conflans could then embark the army of invasion and wait for the weather to drive Hawke away, as it had done twice already in this autumn campaign. But most of all, he considered that Hawke would not pursue him in such wild seas; to fight during a storm was against all the precepts of naval warfare. As he put it to the Minister of Marine:

The wind was very violent at west-north-west, the sea very high with every indication of very heavy weather. These circumstances, added to the object which all your letters pointed out, and the superiority of the enemy . . . determined me to make for Morbihan . . . I had no grounds for thinking that, if I got in first with twenty-one of the line, the enemy would dare to follow me. In order to show the course, I had chosen the order of sailing in single line. In this order I led the van; and in order to form ‘the natural order of battle’ I had nothing to do but take my station in the centre, which I intended to do . . . as soon as the entire line was inside the bay.

Battle of Quiberon Bay III

Swaine, Francis; The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 20 November 1759; National Maritime Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-battle-of-quiberon-bay-20-november-1759-175715

Certainly it was against all the canons of naval warfare to fight a battle in such weather. Under a thunderous cobalt-grey sky the Royal George crowded on sail in pursuit of the French, spray scudding from her bows as she drove before the wind. Hawke was pushing as hard as he dared, and his officers anxiously scanned the cracking and heaving canvas above them. All hands stood ready at sheets and braces, and the decks were cleared for action. At about 10 a.m. the Royal George shook out the second reef in her topsails and set studding sails. Seeing land ahead – which he took to be Belle-Île – Hawke hoist his colours and ordered the topgallant sails set, a very risky manoeuvre in such high seas. Hawke’s other ships did not find his hard driving easy to accommodate: the Magnanime sustained damage in the topgallants and had to slow for repairs. The atmosphere in the other vessels is best described as controlled panic. Several ships stove in their launches and longboats and jettisoned them, while the Burford threw its livestock overboard. At noon the wind was blowing so hard that the Royal George was forced to take in two reefs in her foresails. As Hawke explained conditions to the Admiralty: ‘All day we had very fresh gales at north-west and W.N.W. with heavy squalls. M. Conflans kept going off under such sail as all his squadron could carry and at the same time keep together; while we crowded after him with every sail our ships could carry.’

Conflans might have been justified in thinking that the enemy would not attempt to follow him into Quiberon Bay – even if high seas were not running, there were simply too many Royal Navy ships. And there were other rational grounds for his action. All he had to do was wait until the next westerly gale blew Hawke off station, which would enable the invasion flotilla to come out. French critics always think Conflans should have fought and risked his fleet to put Hawke out of action. Against this was the consideration that, even if the two fleets knocked each other out, there were still dozens of Royal Navy frigates left to destroy d’Aiguillon’s transports. The fallacy in Conflans’s thinking was, however, twofold. For even if he was not being pursued by his most deadly foe, how did he hope to get all his ships through the narrow harbour entrance while such a ferocious storm was blowing? And, however strategically sound Conflans’s ideas, in war so much depends on the unexpected. Doubtless nobody could have foreseen that Hawke would hurl himself onto a lee shore with a press of sail, when the shoreline was known to be studded with reefs and shoals. But a commander must always try to read his opponent and gauge his desperation. Here was Hawke, who had been itching to finish off the enemy since the beginning of the year, and obsessed with the notion that he was plagued by supernatural ill luck.

Conflans should have known Hawke was desperate, and a desperate man, like a gambler, will risk the entire pot on a single throw.

If courage is the art of taking minutely calculated risks, Hawke was a great practitioner of the art. Ever since Finisterre in 1747 he had been working on a range of battle orders that would cover every contingency. Part of the fleet drill was that in a general chase the warships nearest the enemy should form line of battle and engage without regard to their position in the overall battle line; as new ships came up, they would also engage without worrying about their regular stations. Since Howe was now in the van with seven men-o war, these conditions were fulfilled. Undeterred by the weather, Hawke hoist his flags and set topgallant sails, despite the rising sea, and the other ships were compelled to follow his example. This was an extremely dangerous manoeuvre and, like everything Hawke did that day, strictly against the book. There was nearly an early disaster, for Keppel carried so much sail that water poured into his lee ports and he had to come up into the wind very quickly to avoid capsizing. All this time the wind speed was increasing from the west-north-west, with heavy gusts, driving rain and sudden squalls. Not even Hawke dared to flout the odds in such conditions, so he very soon took in his topgallant sails, while ordering them reset the moment the wind abated.

The result of Hawke’s headstrong, risky pursuit was to wreck Conflans’s plan for getting all his ships to safety before the British could engage. Making way with perilous rapidity on a rising sea, Howe in the Magnanime began to gain on the enemy. Conflans realised he might not have time to get all his ships inside the bay and then form line under the shelter of the western shore. Now it looked as though the French would not have time to haul to the wind and come about. To his incredulity, the rising gale, high seas and dangerous lee shore coruscating with rocks and shoals did nothing to make the British slacken their speed, and the Magnanime and Royal George were even prepared to set their topgallants. The Bay of Biscay was in full ferocity, with pyramidal waves, a heavy swell and foam-flecked confused seas, where the dark green of the ocean, the grey of the ‘white caps’ and the lowering black clouds on the horizon produced an atmosphere of Stygian gloom even at midday. The menacing seas found their complement in the rocky shore – one of the most dangerous of all Atlantic coastlines. The French were making for the entrance to the bay between Dumet Island and the Cardinal rocks to port – the last of the long range of rocks and islets that continue the Quiberon peninsula; beyond that was a lee shore sticklebacked with reefs. By noon Hawke was off the south coast of Belle-Île and could see huge breakers smashing against the cliffs. In the distance he could make out the foam-drenched Hoedik rocks and the surf-beaten Cardinals. A heavy breaking sea was crashing over the Guérin and other rocky banks flanking the approach to the southern entrance to Quiberon Bay, which lay between the Cardinals and the Four shoal to starboard, a perilous rocky bank about seven miles east-south-east.

For two hours the Royal Navy steadily closed the gap between their vanguard and the four ships in the French rear – Formidable, Thésée, Héros and Superbe. At around 2 p.m. the leading vessel in the British van, the Coventry, came under fire from the French. But as the French stood in for land, Howe, commanding the British van, signalled to his crews to keep their nerve and refrain from firing back until they were close enough to touch the muzzles of the enemy guns. But the gunners on HMS Warspite disregarded the orders and, without any word of command from their captain (Sir John Bentley), opened up on the hindmost enemy ship, which was out of range. It was about 2.30 p.m. when Conflans in his flagship the Soleil Royal reached the Cardinal rocks. As he entered and hauled round them, Conflans heard the sound of gunfire and realised that his slow rear had been caught. The four French ships toiling along eight to ten miles behind their Admiral were now being attacked by nine Royal Navy warships. Conflans, who had already committed the grave error of not using his flagship as a focus around which his other vessels could cluster, now committed another by not turning round and going to their rescue; there was still time to save the rearguard before Hawke’s main force came up. His excuse was that when he saw the rearguard giving a good account of itself, he thought it could escape without his help. Moreover, he could not turn round until he had shown the way into Quiberon Bay to the ships immediately behind him.

By this time, isolated and abandoned, the four French ships in the rear were fighting tigerishly against the nine men-of-war in the Royal Navy van. By about 2.45 p.m. Magnanime, Swiftsure, Torbay, Dorsetshire, Resolution, Warspite, Montague, Revenge and Defiance were within gunshot of the French, with Hawke and the rest of the British fleet about six miles behind. Just before 3 p.m. the Revenge engaged the eighty-gun Formidable, flagship of Rear-Admiral St André du Verger, but the Frenchman stood away to rake the Magnifique, which soon had its topmast and foreyard carried away. The captains of the Dorsetshire and Defiance decided that their colleagues were strong enough to deal with the French rear and overtook them, taking fire as they went, hoping to catch up with Conflans. Soon after the action began, the elements took a hand and a heavy squall struck both fleets, with the Royal Navy ships taking a particular battering. The Temple was forced to double-reef her topsails; the Dorsetshire, with lee ports under water, had to luff in order to clear the water between decks; and the Torbay almost broached to and took so much water in the lee ports that the captain had to bring her up in the wind with all speed. At about 3.17 p.m. Hawke’s fleet was hit by such a heavy squall that the Chichester’s fore-topsail was carried away. The Magnanime, Warspite and Montague ran foul of each other, and in the collision all three lost jib-booms and sprit-sail yards. The Montague later reported the loss of jib-boom, spritsail, spritsail-topsail yard, driver boom and spare anchor as well as severe damage to the main chains and quarter.

The collision of the three Royal Navy ships momentarily halted the pursuit, but once the Magnanime got clear she overhauled the Formidable and engaged her in ferocious combat. Soon joined by the Warspite, the Royal Navy ship began to make steady inroads on the Formidable’s defences; in half an hour, despite much heroism, the French ship was fought to a standstill. But the Formidable’s stupendous performance should never be forgotten: completely surrounded, she battled on like a wounded panther, taking fire from successive ships. The admiring British assailants reported that she looked like a gigantic colander and still continued to fight, though virtually a floating wreck. At about this time the Magnanime detached to pursue the seventy-four-gun Héros, which had been in the thick of the fighting and had lost fore and mizzen topmasts. As the French vessel tried to make off for the south, the Magnanime overhauled her and raked her. The Chatham too came up, and shortly afterwards the Héros struck its colours. The devastation wrought by the Magnanime was such that every officer down to the rank of midshipman had been killed. There were 400 dead and wounded on board, the helm was shot away and the decks were strewn with wreckage. The surrendered Héros came to anchor but the gale was so fierce that no boats could be lowered to board her.

Just before the Héros struck, an even greater disaster hit the French. Shortly after 4 p.m. the seventy-four-gun Thésée bore down to engage the Torbay. Manoeuvring in a giant swell, both ships took the immiment risk of being swamped in order to use their main batteries. The French ship blasted four of the enemy sails and had the better of the gunnery, but Captain Kersaint de Coetnempren of the Thésée lacked Keppel’s brilliance as a seaman. Keppel flung the Torbay round into the wind as soon as water began to burst into his gun-ports. But the Thésée suddenly shipped an enormous sea through the cannon holes, capsized and went to the bottom in seconds. Kersaint, one of the rising stars of the French navy, perished alongside 650 of his men; only twenty-two survived. Horrified by the sea’s cruel treatment of a fellow mariner, Keppel launched boats into the seething sea-cauldron. His courage was matched by the grit of his tars: one boat’s crew picked up nine French survivors and floundered in the savage sea until after dark, when it finally found its way back to the Torbay. Part of the problem here was that Keppel after his narrow escape took his ship alongside the stricken Formidable to finish her off, administering the coup de grâce with a double broadside. On board the French ship were scenes of horror. After seeing his ship’s fore-topmast shot away, the wounded Duverger continued to direct operations from a chair on the quarterdeck until he received a fatal shot; his brother then took over and was shot in the same way; finally a second captain assumed command until he too was killed; then at last the Formidable struck, to the Resolution. It was no more than a floating carcass, its decks littered with corpses and torn to pieces by bullets and cannon-shot.

The saga of woes of the ships in the French rearguard was not yet ended. By this time the running battle had taken the combatants to the edge of the Cardinals where Conflans in the Soleil Royal had emerged at the entrance, still hoping to form his ships up in battle line or at least to double the Four head near Croisic and thus draw the English fleet away onto the open sea. The attempt to form line just inside the bay soon had to be abandoned as a total disaster; Conflans did not even manage to take up station in the centre. Before he could draw up his ships in a tight, defensive formation, they all had to be inside the bay, and they were not. Then the Magnanime swept into the bay, with French assailants swarming around her like killer whales around a rorqual. Before long other Royal Navy ships had come to her rescue, but by then Conflans’s would-be defensive line was thrown into confusion by a fresh development. The wind shifted to the north-west, making it impossible for the French to go about. They were now in a funnel with rocks on one side and the Royal Navy on the other.

With fifty ships of the line crammed into an area five miles long and six and a half broad, hemmed in by islands and shoals, Conflans’s fleet had no room to manoeuvre. There was a press of French ships in the bay, with the Royal Navy slavering nearby and the whole drama being played out under a grey, darkening sky, lit up by fires and mottled by clouds of smoke. Thousands of spectators, who had run out from Croisic and nearby villages, watched as the British and French ships rolled heavily on the great ocean swell that had followed them into the bay. Total confusion reigned and in places seemed likely to turn into pandemonium. A French officer wrote: ‘The confusion was dreadful when the van, in which I was, tried to go about. Part could not do it. We were in a funnel, as it were, all on top of each other, with rocks on one side of us and ships on another.’ Seeing that it was impossible to form a defensive line, Conflans opted for the escape scenario. Having now definitely decided to make for the open sea, accompanied by two other ships, he was making rapidly for the exit when Hawke in the Royal George rounded the Cardinals. Conflans was unlucky. On the way out he had shot up the Swiftsure, destroying her fore-topsail yard and causing her to broach to; in the open ocean this would have been the end of her. Taking additional damage in her tiller rope, the Swiftsure limped out of action, and lay to under a mizzen – the only sail she had left to set. But the ten-minute delay in sweeping her out of his path meant that Conflans did not get clear before Hawke spotted his ensign.

Hawke ordered the Royal George’s master to lay her alongside the Soleil Royal. The master protested vociferously that, in failing light and with a rising sea, such a manoeuvre was madness. It was then that, according to legend, Hawke made his famous reply: ‘You have done your duty in apprising me of the danger; let us next see how well you can comply with my orders. I say, lay me alongside the French Admiral!’ Hawke’s flagship caught up with Conflans and his flotilla at about 4.25 p.m., only to receive a heavy broadside from all three French ships. The two flagships exchanged broadsides, but then swept past each other as more ships became sucked into the confused mêlée, partly by osmosis, partly because they were uncontrollable in the weather. Astern of Hawke’s vessel other ships (the Union, Mars and Hero) were coming up to help him. Seeing Hawke manoeuvring to rake Conflans, the seventy-gun Intrépide, the only survivor of the five French ships in the rearguard, interposed itself between the two flagships and took the full force of the murderous gunnery from the Royal George. At 4.41 p.m. she sank almost instantly, dragging down with her 630 Breton sailors. There were no survivors and the tragedy was made more poignant as these were poor, conscripted peasants who had never been to sea before Conflans cleared from Brest. The fact that Captain Monthalais was himself a Breton did nothing to assuage the depression that fell on north-western France, as Brittany mourned its lost sons for months.

Meanwhile, while manoeuvring to avoid being raked by the Royal George, the Soleil Royal fell to leeward and then, in trying to tack, fouled two of the ships following her. Consequently she was unable to weather the Four and had to run back and anchor off Croisic. It was now past 5 p.m., the dark of a winter’s night had descended, it was blowing harder than ever and high seas were running even inside the bay; outside in the ocean enormous waves were building up. Hawke considered his options. Ahead of him lay the wave-besieged shore of Dumet Island, while close at hand and uncharted were the killer rocks and shoals of Croisic; even more peril lay to the south in the form of a seething chaos of breakers and combers washing around the dangerous Four shoal. All around him were unknown reefs and shoals just waiting for an unwary vessel, while outside in the Atlantic it sounded from the din of crashing surf as if the world was coming to an end.

Hawke had been lucky so far and he knew it; but he also knew when to cut his losses and not push his luck. At 5.30 p.m. he hauled down the signal for engagement, though not all his captains heeded the signal, continuing the fight until around 6 p.m. in their eagerness to prevent the enemy’s escape. Some of the Royal Navy ships thus came within an ace of running aground in the dusk. Finally, just after six o’clock, all firing ceased. It was said that the very last shots fired were by L’Orient. Then Hawke gave the signal to anchor – two guns fired from the flagship, without lights, so that only the vessels directly adjacent to the Royal George knew where it was anchored. Most of Hawke’s fleet anchored between Dumet Island and the Cardinals, but a few spent the night at rest in another part of the bay, while some intrepid souls (Swiftsure, Revenge, Dorsetshire and Defiance) actually stood out to sea.

Both sides spent the night in some anxiety and uncertainty, but the French were most beset by gloom. All that terrible day they had endured the moaning of the savage gale, the ceaseless rattle of blocks and creaking of yards. While the storm crashed around them, the infernal din was counterpoised by the slatting of canvas and the clatter of sheets, the booming of guns, the crash of falling spars, the shivering and splintering of woodwork, the groans of wounded men and the shrieks of poor souls drowning in the foam-flecked brine. Even the pitch, roll and yaw of the ships and the thrumming of backstays had been an agony to their taut-stretched nerves. And now they had to face the uncertainty of a hellish, black night. The French were the first to crack. Seven of their ships, led by Villan de Brosse in the Glorieux, tacking to avoid the rocks and shoals they at least knew about and which lay all around them, made their way deeper and deeper towards the estuary of the River Vilaine. Another French ship, the Juste, got out of the bay and headed north to the Loire estuary. Since both captains (the brothers Saint-Allouarn) had been killed, the First Lieutenant took command and managed to navigate the vessel out onto the open sea. They survived the storm and struggled all night to repair the smashed rigging and plug leaks but in vain. Next morning they had a fair wind for entering the Loire and made for St Nazaire. Miscalculating the falling tide and thus coming too close to land, the Juste struck a rock, pitching its complement into the sea. Although the crew took to the boats as the ship broke up, only a handful of the 630 men on board survived – and again the dead were all Bretons.

Unknowingly, Conflans had anchored right in the middle of the Royal Navy vessels and when morning came would be easy prey. There was no hope of rescue for eight ships were already out of the reckoning, seven in the Vilaine river and another a wreck on the Brittany coast. The masters of these ships had at least acted for the best according to their own lights. But in the case of Conflans’s deputy, the Chevalier de Bauffremont, the suspicion of cowardice, incompetence or dereliction of duty must be entertained. Bauffremont’s pilot warned him that to stay in the bay in the middle of reefs and shoals was supremely hazardous and advised him to make for the open sea. Bauffremont (on the Tonnant) conferred with his nearest colleague, Captain Guébriant of the L’Orient, whose pilot gave him the same advice. Concluding that Conflans ‘must have’ been similarly warned and must therefore be exiting the bay, Bauffremont, without sending out boats to try to locate the flagship, simply headed out to sea and sailed down to Rochefort. He claimed to be astonished to discover both that five vessels from the fleet were already there and that Conflans was not one of them. Taxed with running away, Bauffremont pointed out that a return to Brest was out of the question because of contrary winds, and that six ships (including his own) from three different divisions in the fleet had all independently come to the same conclusion he had reached; they had not all arrived at Rochefort together. Moreover, he was simply obeying standing orders, which stated that in the aftermath of a lost battle a captain should always steer for the nearest unobstructed port.

Battle of Quiberon Bay IV

The morning of the 21st dawned, still stormy. The bulk of the Royal Navy fleet was anchored about three miles from Dumet Island at the mouth of the Vilaine river. To his astonishment, Hawke saw the Soleil Royal anchored nearby and only eight other French vessels in sight, beyond and inshore of the British line. Finally understanding his desperate position, Conflans slipped anchor and tried to reach Croisic Roads where there were protecting batteries. Hawke sent the Essex in pursuit but both she and her quarry ran aground on Four shoal, hard by the Héros, similarly disabled. This was now a veritable graveyard of ships, for at 10 p.m. the night before the Resolution had also struck a reef here and run aground. Hawke meanwhile weighed anchor and gave the signal to attack the other French ships in the Vilaine. But it was blowing so hard from the north-west that he finally considered the attempt suicidal and struck topgallant masts. With the aid of the storm and a favourable wind, the French vessels managed to cross the bar into the Vilaine river – a feat they could probably not have achieved in any other weather conditions; as it was, they had to jettison all guns and gear to get to safety. The conjuncture of the tides and the freak high-water level in Quiberon Bay combined to provide a unique, unrepeatable opportunity.

All that day the gale raged ferociously and unceasingly. Not until evening did Hawke dare even to lower boats to rescue the crew of the stricken Essex. It was only on the 22nd that Hawke sent in three ships to finish off the Soleil Royal and the Héros. Seeing the British about to descend on him, Conflans set fire to his flagship and escaped; he did not even tarry to save the magnificent artillery on board. The British arrived and boarded the blazing flagship but had no time to do more than carry off the golden-rayed figurehead. Duff’s men then completed the French discomfiture by burning the Héros. Hawke worked up as far as the Vilaine estuary and even found an anchorage, but concluded there was no way he could reach the other French ships. Duff and his captains reconnoitred the lower reaches of the Vilaine in small boats and at first there was some hope that they could send in fireships, but this later proved chimerical. The French ships were now, at any rate, out of the war, though some did return to service a year later. Hawke now proceeded to tighten his hold on the Brittany coast. He sent Keppel with a flying squadron to investigate French ships said to have taken refuge in the Basque Roads, but these vessels proceeded up the River Charentin, out of reach of the Royal Navy, so Keppel returned to Quiberon Bay. And he seized Belle-Île, a wonderful base for raids on France’s west coast.

In the euphoria of victory Hawke did not observe the precise rules of warfare as understood by eighteenth-century international law, and this embroiled him in an acrimonious and abrasive correspondence with d’Aiguillon. Although he sent the French wounded ashore, he reserved the right to extract the big guns from the Soleil Royal and set about their removal. D’Aiguillon and his second-in-command, the Marquis de Broc, protested that the Soleil Royal and the Héros had never struck, so that Hawke could not claim them and all their contents as lawful prizes of war. When Hawke disregarded the protests, d’Aiguillon ordered local militiamen to open fire on any British working parties attempting to remove artillery from the Soleil Royal. Matters quickly escalated: Hawke opened fire on Croisic and threatened a systematic bombardment if his men were attacked again. He then seized the Île d’Yeu, halfway down the coast to Rochefort, destroyed its defences, rounded up all the cattle there and slaughtered them to feed his hungry sailors. At the end of the year Hawke returned in triumph to England, handing over the continuing blockade of Quiberon to Boscawen.

 

Quiberon Bay was one of the great naval victories in world history. It may lack the totality of Nelson’s later triumphs at the Nile and Trafalgar, if only because many of the French ships never got into the fight; and it was not a decisive event in the sense that Salamis, Actium and Tsushima were. It did not even have the obvious drama of Lepanto. But a sea battle fought in a violent storm will surely remain a unique event in all the chronicles of the ages. Hawke never really got the praise he deserved and there is even something defensive in the way he described the battle to the Admiralty:

In attacking a flying enemy, it was impossible in the space of a short winter’s day that all our ships should be able to get into action or all those of the enemy brought to it . . . When I consider the season of the year, the hard gales on the day of the action, and the coast they were on, I can boldly affirm that all that could possibly be done has been done. As to the loss we have sustained, let it be placed to the account of the necessity I was under of running all risks to break this strong force of the enemy. Had we but two hours more daylight, the whole had been totally destroyed or taken; for wewere almost up with their van when night overtook us.

At Quiberon, Hawke lost two ships and 300–400 men. The French lost five, including their flagships Soleil Royal and Formidable, and more than 2,500 men, most of them drowned. Additionally, four of the seven vessels that had taken refuge in the Vilaine ended up with their backs broken. Essentially Hawke’s victory was the result of superior seamanship and his readiness to risk all to defeat the enemy. His was a stunning achievement in such weather. Ungenerous critics say that Hawke was above all lucky in meeting the victuallers when he did near Ushant, while Conflans lost three days to gales. But against this counterfactual can be set another, which says that if Hawke had not arrived at Quiberon Bay until 22 November, he would have entered the bay and won an even more spectacular victory while Conflans was trying to embark d’Aiguillon’s invading force. Certainly Hawke always attracted contrary opinions. At the very moment of his victory, the British mob, frustrated with the lack of a decisive breakthrough, was burning him in effigy. When news of the victory reached London it was of course a different story. Horace Walpole wrote to his confidant Mann: ‘You would not know your country again. You left it a private little island, living upon its means. You would find it the capital of the world. St James’s Street crowded with Nabobs and American chiefs, and Mr Pitt attended on his Sabine farm by Eastern monarchs, waiting till the gout has gone out of his foot for an audience.’ For all that, Hawke himself was ill requited. He was awarded a £2,000-a-year pension, but nothing else. Since Pitt did not like him and Anson was jealous of him, he waited in vain for further recognition for his triumph at Quiberon. After Finisterre in 1747 he had been raised to the peerage, but the ruling elite, still full of Wolfe-mania, ignored a far greater hero.

But for Conflans and the French, Quiberon was an utter catastrophe. The general opinion in France was that Conflans deserved to live in eternal infamy for the events of 20 November 1759. Opinion in the streets of Paris was inflamed, but not more so than in Brittany, where the people turned violently against the whole idea of foreign invasions; in Vannes the locals tore down theatre posters and would not allow the actors of the Comédie Française to perform for d’Aiguillon and his officers. Conflans lamely told Berryer that he had done his best and acted with ‘firmness and wisdom’. The problem, in his view, was the quixotic attempt to mount an invasion in winter. To d’Aiguillon the day after the battle he was blunter: ‘What can we do with such marked naval inferiority? At least this debacle should put an end to these ill-coordinated land and sea combined operations.’ He left the navy soon afterwards and died, forgotten, in 1777. Conflans was a mediocre by-the-book admiral who did not seriously confront his own errors. Obsessed with avoiding a battle at all costs, he was indecisive for the whole of 20 November. First he headed towards the enemy, then he fled in such haste as to leave his rear unprotected. Once at Quiberon he dithered again: first he wanted to get inside the bay, and then he wanted to get out. As the true hero of the day on the French side, Saint-André du Verger remarked: ‘The circumstances of this day’s work are a disgrace to our Navy, and show only too well that it has but a handful of officers with initiative, courage and skill; that nothing else will do but to reorganise the service from top to bottom, and to provide it with commanders who are capable of commanding.’

Yet the real villain of 20 November was Bauffremont, who disobeyed standing orders and also the particular command from Conflans that he should never lose sight of the flagship. He was later accused of having deliberately ignored signals from Conflans out of jealousy and personal dislike; the fact that he was aided and abetted by Bigot de Morogues, still smarting after Conflans went above his head to Choiseul, adds circumstantial colour to the charge. That Bauffremont acted like a coward or a dullard seems scarcely disputable; the only serious argument is about whether he was guilty of treason or just terminally stupid. Bauffremont’s protestation that he acted on his pilot’s advice is irrelevant, if that meant ignoring explicit orders. But he soon added bluster to his other blemishes and indignantly wrote to Berryer to know why he was being cross-questioned. When Berryer on i December ordered him and all the ships at Rochefort to clear at once for Brest, Bauffremont sulkily replied that it was impossible, yet he would try to perform the miracle requested. On 21 December he sent a long screed of apologia to Berryer. Surely his action in sailing for Rochefort, thus saving eight ships, was better than staying with Conflans, where these vessels would either have been gutted or bottled up, useless, on the Vilaine? He then got on his high horse and declared that he should by now have had Berryer’s express commendation for what he had done. Bauffremont remained completely unapologetic and, in a bellicose letter to Choiseul in 1762, demanded to know why he was being held responsible for the disaster at Quiberon when French commanders genuinely responsible for debacles like Crefeld and Minden were never censured. The Ministry of Marine formed its own opinion on Bauffremont and made him wait until 1764 for the Lieutenant-Generalship he solicited two years earlier.

The contrast between the mild treatment of Conflans and Bauffremont by France and the savagery meted out by England to Admiral Byng in 1757 is clear. One shudders to think of the likely treatment of Bauffremont by the Admiralty. His self-defence (all the later blustering aside) was essentially twofold: he always obeyed orders but did not see Conflans’s signals; and he exercised the sort of discretion that he imagined his leader was even then exercising. But Bauffremont really could not have it both ways. If he was not in command, then he had to obey Conflans’s orders; the transparent fiction that he did not see the Marshal’s signals fooled nobody, and he was anyway under a strict professional obligation not to lose sight of the Soleil Royal. He also overlooked his clear duty as chief of squadron -which was to inform all ships in his division of his decision to run for Rochefort. He could not therefore logically state that other captains took the sauve qui peut decision to run for Rochefort independently, but he did so because it was one of the main planks of his defence. Bauffremont therefore stands convicted on a number of moral counts. He neglected his duty both to his superior and his subordinates and sinned against discipline and against the honour of the French Marine. Like other captains guilty of dereliction of duty he forgot the cardinal rule: all initiatives must not be independent but within the context of the Commander-in-Chief’s general orders. By trying to exculpate himself with a number of different arguments, Bauffremont simply impaled himself with self-contradiction.

Bauffremont probably escaped court martial only because Berryer had more important things on his mind. On 25 November he informed d’Aiguillon that the expedition to Scotland was officially suspended. The troops at Morbihan, almost atrophied from months of inaction, were given furlough. However, because of the continued presence of the British on the Atlantic coast, d’Aiguillon’s army was not disbanded and transferred to service in Germany, but broken up, cantoned, dispersed along the coast and used to repel invaders in Brittany and Gascony. The Basque roads and Belle-Île were now being used as anchorages by the Royal Navy who were so confident of quasi-permanent occupation that they used several islets as extended vegetable gardens. The mighty French fleet had been humiliated and, like the German Grand Fleet after Jutland, never put to sea again during the Seven Years War. Although naval captains and Jacobites continued to lobby Versailles to attempt an invasion of Britain with unescorted transports, the ministers had gone sour on ‘descents’. The debacle at Quiberon played into the hands of those members of the Council of State who wished to concentrate on continental warfare, and even Berryer’s prime interest in the ships that had got away to Rochefort was to disarm them so that he could save money.

For Pitt, Quiberon was the victory that set the seal on the year of victories. 1759 had been like a dream for him. He had made the Royal Navy the pivot of his global strategy and had been successful beyond anything he could have imagined. Seapower had enabled him to win the struggle for the West Indies, to defeat France in the battle for mastery in North America and to devastate all Choiseul’s counter-offensives. With Anson and Hawke, a talented team, he had successfully introduced the innovation of a fleet-in-being, for no armada like Hawke’s had ever been at sea for so long, or would be again for forty years. Britain was now incontestably a great power – perhaps the greatest of all time at this moment – and controlled the world’s sea lanes: to North America, to the Caribbean and to the Orient. Pitt’s triumph gave new heart to Frederick of Prussia, currently at the nadir of his fortunes. By diplomatic finesse had kept Spain out of the war, though Pitt knew that Spain was still fearful that Britain was now all-powerful in all theatres, and that ill-considered schemes, such as Newcastle’s ambition to control the Baltic by seapower, were likely to alienate her and make new enemies. Even so, Anson was able to announce that in 1760 the Royal Navy would have an unprecedented strength of 301 ships and 85,000 sailors. But most of all, Quiberon destroyed for ever any lingering hopes of a Jacobite restoration. Bonnie Prince Charlie might sulk in his lair at Bouillon, like Achilles in his tent, but no deputation of despairing French Achaeans would ever visit him to beg him to re-enter the fray.

Taranto Carrier Raid – 11 November 1940

Determined to bring the war to the Italian Navy, Admiral Arthur Cunningham led a strong Royal Navy fleet to within 180 miles of the Italian port of Taranto. Swordfish torpedo planes from the fleet carrier HMS Illustrious attacked Italian warships in the harbor. Achieving complete tactical surprise, the “Swordfish” holed three battleships and a cruiser in exchange for the loss of just two of the old biplanes. The lopsided result deeply impressed all navies, newly revealing the striking power of naval aircraft and vulnerability of capital warships. The Japanese especially noted the similarities between Taranto and Pearl Harbor and carefully studied the Taranto raid as they prepared to attack the U. S. Pacific Fleet. Perhaps it may be interesting to record that a naval Japanese mission visited Taranto in Jan- and Feb. 1941.

Further proof that the Axis Powers were prepared to widen the war even more came with the signing of the Tripartite Pact linking them with Japan in late September and reports of a meeting held between Hitler and the Spanish Caudillo Francisco Franco at Hendaye in the Pyrenees on 23 October. Mussolini had struck both before and after these diplomatic initiatives had been arranged. His reckless enthusiasm for the Axis war effort had been shown firstly in a cross-border attack launched by his 10th Army on Egypt in mid-September and then by an invasion of Greece from across the Albanian border in late October. While his military forces didn’t cover themselves in glory in either of these two new theatres, the Regia Marina – now boasting six battleships – was not doing much more than engaging in mining operations, escorting convoys and skirmishing unsuccessfully with Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet. Worse was to follow for Il Duce and his fleet before November was out. During the night of 11-12 November, two waves of Swordfish aircraft from the carrier Illustrious had the temerity to attack the Italian Fleet as it lay at anchor in harbour at Taranto, crippling three of its battleships while slightly damaging a heavy cruiser and a destroyer into the bargain.

British navy raid on the principal Italian naval base, the fortified harbor of Taranto. Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham and Rear Admiral A. L. St. G. Lyster of the carrier Illustrious planned the operation, code-named JUDGMENT. The date for the raid was to be 27 October 1940, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and a night with a full moon. Thirty Fairey Swordfish were slated to make the attack from the aircraft carriers Illustrious and Eagle. The Swordfish, though it was a 10-year-old biplane, was nonetheless a reliable, sturdy torpedo platform, especially effective in night operations.

A fire on the Illustrious, which destroyed several aircraft, forced postponement of the operation. Then the Eagle, which had sustained near misses from Italian bombs, was found to have been more seriously damaged than originally estimated.

As a consequence, the attack was delayed until the next full moon, when the raid was conducted by the Illustrious alone. Twenty-one Swordfish fitted with extra fuel tanks participated, with 11 of them armed with torpedoes and the remainder carrying bombs and flares. The torpedoes were modified to negate the effects of “porpoising” in the harbor’s shallow water.

At 8:30 P. M. on 11 November, Illustrious launched her aircraft some 170 miles from Taranto. All six of Italy’s battleships were in the harbor, where they were protected by barrage balloons, more than 200 antiaircraft guns, and torpedo nets, although the quantity of the latter was far short of the number the Italian navy considered necessary. The planes set out in two waves an hour apart. The first wave achieved complete surprise when it arrived at Taranto at 11:00 P. M. The pilots cut off their engines and glided in to only a few hundred yards from their targets before releasing the torpedoes against the battleships, which were illuminated by the flares and Italian antiaircraft tracers. Conte di Cavourwas the first battleship struck, followed by Littorio. In the second attack at 11:50, Littorio was struck again, and Duilio was also hit. In the two attacks, Conte di Cavour and Duilio each took one torpedo and Littorio three.

Conte di Cavour was the only battleship to sink, and she went down in shallow water. Italian tugs towed the other two damaged ships to shore. The cruiser Trento and destroyer Libeccio were both hit by bombs, but the bombs did not explode and caused only minor damage. Fifty-two Italian sailors died in the attack. The British lost two planes; the crewmen of one were rescued by the Italians.

As the maximum depth of water at any time in the harbour at Taranto was only 49′ (42′ has been quoted as the depth where the Italian battleships were moored). The torpedoes used at Taranto were a mix of contact and magnetic pistols. The greatest damage was done by the torpedoes equipped with the magnetic pistol and which were set to run at 34′.

Conte di Cavour was later raised and towed to Trieste to be repaired, but the work was not completed and she was never recommissioned. The Littorio was overhauled by March 1941, and the Duilio, which was transferred to Genoa, was repaired and returned to Taranto in May 1941. The Taranto raid thus deprived Italy of its naval advantage and at least temporarily altered the Mediterranean balance of power, and it also underscored the effectiveness of naval aircraft.

Taranto, only one-third of the planned torpedo netting was actually in place by the time the attack came in November 1940.  A further, and somewhat fortuitous, chink in the Italian armor was the fact that a major storm had blown a significant number of the barrage balloons loose from their moorings.  These, too, had yet to be replaced, with the result that there were several sizeable gaps in the balloon barrage– and the British planes in fact slipped through at least one of these gaps in making their attack.

The chief Italian failing at Taranto in terms of “nature of means” was their lack of radar. In the pre-war years, the Italians had gone with the cheaper alternative of sophisticated listening devices as early-warning for their coasts (despite the fact that Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy, had demonstrated a working radar set for the Army a couple years before the war). The listening devices indeed picked up the first wave of British aircraft while they were still about 30 miles offshore, but once the enemy planes got over land there was no way to track their direction.

Everyone on the British side was delighted with the results of Operation Judgment, since it appeared to have eased the Allied naval position in the Central Mediterranean, by reducing the risks to their convoy traffic and boosting morale in their own ranks, while complicating the Italian strategic situation and deflating the enemy. Cunningham summed up the cost-benefit analysis of the entire operation perfectly by stating: `As an example of “economy of force” it is probably unsurpassed.’ He was not prone to exaggeration and his enthusiasm for taking the fight to the Italians was infectious.