We’ve observed on several occasions that many of the incidents in novels set during the Age of Sail are heavily influenced by actual events. In most cases, the novel’s protagonist expands on the accomplishments of the actual character. In Ramages’s Diamond, Lord Ramage manages to turn the battery later known as HMS Fort Diamond into a combat multiplier that enables his mini-squadron consisting of his frigate, a prize frigate, and a prize sloop to snap up a French convoy and its escorts.
Alexander Kent, on the other hand, perhaps feeling that the actual event was too improbable, actually downplays Nelson’s use of one Spanish ship of the line as a bridge to board and take a second, larger Spanish ship of the line and has Richard Bolitho use a friendly brig as a bridge to board and take a French frigate.
Every once in a while, though, the novel’s protagonist makes out worse than the actual character.
Fans of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower all know of how Hornblower became a prisoner of Bonaparte. Hornblower, in the novel Ship of the Line, in HMS Sutherland (74) is on detached patrol in the Mediterranean. He meets up with a French squadron consisting of four ships of the line, including one three-decker. Hornblower, knowing his squadron is just over the horizon, decides to engage the French at the hazard of his own ship in order to cripple the enemy ships sufficiently to guarantee their destruction. His gamble succeeds but Sutherland is pounded into a dismasted, sinking hulk in the process and Hornblower has to strike his colors. The 1951 film, Captain Horatio Hornblower starring Gregory Peck, uses this as the central battle of the film.
We’ve already introduced Captain Henry Trollope. In 1795 he was asked to end eight years of half-pay and take command of one of six Indiamen purchased by the Navy Board from the East India Company for conversion into men o’ war. Trollope was given command of HMS Glatton (56) which was scheduled to be commissioned with 28 long 18-pounders in her main battery and 28 carronades, 32-pounders, on the deck. Trollope received Admiralty approval to replace the long 18-pounders with an equal number of 68-pound carronades making Glatton, like Trollope’s previous command Rainbow, equipped with all carronades.
Glatton joined the fleet of Admiral Adam Duncan off the Dutch coast in early 1796.
Late in the evening of July 16, 1796, about 15 miles off Hellevoetsluis, Glatton spotted a squadron consisting of six ships, four of which were frigates including one 50 gun ship, one a brig, and the last a cutter. He challenged them via signal flag and they did not answer. This, and the way they were maneuvering, convinced Trollope that they were hostile.
A lesser man might have sailed for help. Not Trollope. He ordered Glatton cleared for action and steered for them. For reasons that aren’t clear, the enemy squadron kept their stations and did not move against Glatton. Around 10pm Glatton was alongside the third ship in the squadron, the largest frigate which was flying a commodore’s pennant, and Trollope hailed her. Ascertaining she was French he ordered her captain to strike. He received a broadside instead. At a range of about 30 yards, or “pistol shot”, Glatton returned fire. That ship’s consorts came to her aid and Glatton found herself with a French frigate on either side with yardarms nearly touching.
Glatton was only staffed to provide a full crew at one battery and a half crew on the other. Even so, the carronades enabled Glatton to keep up a full rate of fire from both sides of the ship.
Things continued to deteriorate. The other French ships took up station off Glatton’s bow, stern, and quarter and poured fire into her. The volume of this fire was obviously constrained by the fact that the two French ships alongside Glatton would have been potential targets of friendly fire but it had to be disconcerting, at least, to be set upon by five or six ships.
In this battle, Glatton suffered severe injuries to her masts, rigging, and steering and became nearly unmanageable. Trollope managed to stay alongside his adversaries and continue to fire. The first ship Trollope had challenged broke off the fight. While trying to maneuver Glatton to stay in contact with this ship he had to draw men from the batteries to compensate for damage to the ship’s system for making sail and steering. One of the French ships bore down on her, probably thinking that she was ready to strike, Trollope called the men back to the guns and drove this ship off.
The French broke contact but Glatton was so damaged that she was unable to pursue. Trollope spent the remainder of the night making repairs to his masts, yards, and rigging. By 7 am he was ready to continue the action, in the meantime the entire French squadron was in flight in the direction of the port at Flushing.
Trollope pursued the enemy until 9 am when he realized the he could not catch them and that there were no other British ships in the vicinity. He broke of pursuit and sailed to Yarmouth for repairs arriving on July 21.
All of the French ships were severely damaged, one of them sinking in Flushing harbor.
In this case, Captain Trollope outdid the fictional exploits of Captain Hornblower.