On the morning of 21 January 1807 HMS Galatea (38), Captain George Sayer, was off the coast of Venezuela when she sighted a sail steering for Guaira near Caracas. Galatea put on more sail and as they closed, identified her as a man of war. They were seen at the same time and the unidentified ship changed her course for Barcelona, some 160 miles to the east.
By noon Galatea was becalmed while the strange sail had the benefit of a slight breeze and two hours later her top-gallant sails were scarcely above the horizon. Under ordinary circumstances one would assume that the chase made an escape but this wasn’t an ordinary circumstance.
Captain Sayer ordered the boats of the Galatea manned and launched. The expedition was led by Galatea’s first lieutenant, William Coombe. We don’t know much about Lieutenant Coombe but we do know he had persistence and perseverance by the basketful. Earlier in his career he’d lost his left leg at the knee in combat, it was now replaced with a wooden one. He undoubtedly had some ability, and probably had some significant patron in the navy who could keep him employed when there was a plentiful supply of half pay lieutenants, with two good legs, seeking employment. That Sayer would put him in charge of this expedition definitely suggests he’d long since overcome any objections Sayer might have had about a one-legged first lieutenant.
Two gigs were under John Green, master’s mate; a cutter was under Lieutenant Robert Gibson; the pinnace under Lieutenant Harry Walker; the barge under Lieutenant Coombe; and the launch under Barry Sarsfield, master’s mate. The expedition comprised 50 seamen and 20 marines.
When the chase started all six boats were roped together. By three pm, they had determined that they were making very little progress in overhauling their target which was now 9 to 12 nautical miles distant. Coombe ordered the boats separated and to each make their best way, but that no boat was to precede Coombe in the barge. With dusk coming Coombe was probably equally concerned about losing the chase and the location of Galatea. He order Green to take the largest gig ahead to observe the chase and to place a light on the rear of the gig at nightfall.
The distance and impending nightfall must have had a soporific effect on the ship they were chasing because by 8:30 they were within musket shot, or somewhere around 150 yards of the ship, but they were strung out a bit.
Coombe gave the order to stop rowing and load weapons while they were giving the other boats a chance to catch up. One imagines that after a row of some eight hours under an equatorial sun it might have been nice to just rest for a bit. Green’s gig rejoined them and reported that the chase was an armed brig moving under power from its sweeps.
By 8:40 all the boats had closed on the barge and long gig. They loaded weapons and Coombe deployed the boats in two lines.
To the leeward were the barge, pinnace, and long gig. These boats were to close on the starboard quarter of the brig, steering between the sweeps and the side of the ship. To windward were the cutter, launch, and short gig with orders to board the other side of the ship in the same manner. For identification a challenge and password were issued: the challenge was to be “Sayer” and the password “Death or Victory.”
Now we go to Lieutenant Coombe’s report:
8. 50. Being within pistol shot,- hailed twice ; received no answer, but heard her crew jabbering French ; gave her three cheers, and at 8. 55. Alongside, received the fire of several carronades, and a shower of musketry. Made two attempts to board, but were repulsed, myself wounded by a musket ball passing through the muscular part of my left thigh in the first attack. Being determined to take the brig or die in the attempt, made a third attack; the brave Walker fell in the moment of victory. We gained the deck, when, after a most malicious fight, in about fire minutes the French were all driven off the deck. Thus was captured in 15 minutes, after a chase of forty miles in open boats, the Imperial brig le Lynx, of 14 thirty-two-pounder carronades, English caliber, and 161 men, from Martinique, bound to la Guira, with dispatches.—Found the Captain wounded; second ditto, wounded; late Captain of the Buonaparte killed, with others of the officers killed and wounded.
Lynx was bought into the service. There already being a Lynx on the navy list, she was christened HMS Heureux, rated at 16 guns, and William Coombe promoted into her as commander.
Sayer went on to an successful career, he was knighted in 1815 for his service in the East Indies during the war and died a Rear Admiral in 1831.
I was intrigued by Coombe. The man was obviously a fighter but sometimes things don’t go your way.
On November 28, 1808, Commander Coombe and Heureux were patrolling off Baie Mahaut, Guadeloupe and received information that there were seven French ships lying under the protection of the two batteries which guarded the harbor.
Coombe launched three boats and they rowed for six hours attacking in the early morning hours of 29 November. Coombe led a party of 19 seamen who carried a schooner, probably a privateer, carrying two guns and 39 men. His only officer, Lieutenant Daniel Lawrence led an attack which spiked two 24-pound guns in the battery nearest the ships to be taken and then boarded and took a brig.
By now the garrison was thoroughly alarmed and the shore was lined with soldiers shooting at the fleeing ships. They brought with them a few fieldpieces, also. One the way out of the harbor both prizes grounded. Coombe was in the process of abandoning the prizes when he was struck on the left side by a 24-pound solid shot killing him instantly.
The 50-guinea sword awarded him by the Patriotic Fund for his capture of Lynx was awarded to his widow.