England’s lifeblood during the Napoleonic Wars was naval stores to keep its fleet at sea. The primary source of those stores was Scandinavia and Russia and the convoys carrying them traveled via the Baltic and North Sea. As we’ve already seen, this area was so vital that England was willing to expand its war with Napoleon to encompass heretofore neutral powers in order to keep this supply line secure.
The route was treacherous. The relatively shallow depth created significant wave action. The North Sea also caught incoming waves from the Atlantic which then collided with other wave action originating in the English Channel. The Baltic, in particular, was narrow. The weather often prevented accurate latitude calculations and longitude calculation, in the era before the chronometer, was decidedly problematic. A gale, from any point of the compass, immediately placed a ship in danger of being driven onto a lee shore.
This was never more clearly demonstrated than on Christmas Eve, 1811.
On November 9, 1811 a large convoy departed Hanö Bay, Sweden bound for England. The convoy consisted of approximately 130 merchantmen escorted by HMS St. George (98), HMS Defence (74), and HMS Cressy (74). St. George flew the flag of Rear Admiral Robert Carthew Reynolds.
Reynolds was an experienced officer who had commanded HMS Amazon when he and Captain Edward Pellew, then in Indefatigable, drove the French 74, Droits de l’Homme into the surf in 1797.
The trip started going terribly wrong on November 15 when a gale hit the convoy while it was at anchor off Bornholm Island. Some 30 of the merchantmen were driven aground and wrecked. During the storm a large merchantman broke free from its anchors, crossed in front of St. George and severed her anchor cable. The captain of St. George immediately cut away the other anchors to allow the ship to be maneuvered but the storm increased in ferocity driving her towards shore. The captain, David Oliver Guion, wanted to cut away the masts to stop St. George’s drift but Reynolds, probably concerned about the delay that would cause his convoy refused until it was too late. She was driven aground and only got off with great difficulty, losing her rudder in the process.
When the storm abated, Cressy towed St. George into what was then called Wingo Sound at Goteburg.
HMS Hero and HMS Grasshopper were at Goteburg and were ordered to escort St. George’s convoy home.
A month elapsed while another convoy assembled and St. George was refitted. On December 17 they again got to sea with St. George using jury masts and a type of temporary rudder called a Pakenham’s Rudder. At this point it is important to point out that St. George was launched in 1785 and HMS Defence in 1763. If not tubs, they both certainly presented a passable imitation. In 1801, when St. George was captained by Thomas Masterman Hardy, Nelson wrote
The St. George is in a truly wretched state. I had rather encounter ten painted cabins than her dreary, dirty, and leaky cabin. The water comes in at all parts, and there is not a dry place, or a window that does not let in wind enough to turn a mill.
St. George was laid up in ordinary between 1803 and 1805 and one presumes some refurbishing was accomplished prior to her recommissioning but it is also safe to say that the condition was probably not greatly improved from Nelson’s description. Both were slow sailers and very unhandy in heavy weather.
The new convoy consisted of St. George and her consorts accompanied for a time by another convoy escorted by Victory, Vigo, Dreadnought, and Orion.
On 19 December the full force of the gale hit the convoy. Defence remained near St. George but Cressy, which was much faster and weatherly was not able to remain close by. On December 22 the storm abated a bit and the opinion of those on board Cressy and Defence was that St. George was in worse shape than she appeared.
On the 23rd the storm returned in full force and Captain Pater in Cressy was of the opinion that they were very near shore and if he was to save his ship he must wear ship and move out to sea. No signals were forthcoming from St. George and Captain Pater gave the necessary orders to save Cressy.
The perception on Cressy and Defence was that Admiral Reynolds did not think it necessary to wear ship and while Cressy did so, the captain of Defence thought it his duty to remain on station near St. George. In fact nothing could be farther from the truth. Aboard St. George they were trying heroically to wear ship but the violence of the storm shredded sails as soon as they were set.
Shortly after midnight, Christmas Eve 1811, St. George and Defence went aground at Jutland, Denmark. St. George hit very near the area pictured at the top of the page. Defence struck about two miles farther north. Within three hours both ships were beaten to pieces by the surging waves. Of the 865 officers and men on St. George, 12 survived. Six men of the 560 aboard Defence survived.
The tragedy wasn’t over.
We noted that HMS Hero (74) and HMS Grasshopper (18) had picked up the convoy earlier assigned to St. George. They left Wingo Sound in the company of Egeria (26) and Prince William, armed ship, escorting more than 120 merchantmen.
The convoy split on either the 20th or 21st with Egeria and Prince William taking part of the convoy to Scotland and Humber, Egland. Weather continued to batter the remaining convoy and by December 23 only 18 ships remained, the rest having been scattered.
At noon on the 23rd, Hero signalled for Grasshopper to pass within hail. The pilot aboard Hero had fixed their position at an area known as the Silver Pit, some 45 miles off the English coast and some 125 miles from the Netherlands. Captain Newman-Newman in Hero directed a course that, had the dead reckoning position been correct would have carried them to safety. Unfortunately, they were much closer to shore than they realized.
Grasshopper’s Captain Henry Fanshawe picks up the narrative:
We were then steering W by S. The course was accordingly altered to SW and continued so until 10 at night: the whole of that time blowing a hard gale, and the vessel going at the rate of 9 or 10 knots, under a close reefed main-topsail.
At 10, the night-signal was made to alter course., two points to port, which was obeyed ; and we continued running SSW until three o’clock in the morning of the 24th, at which time we observed the Hero (as we supposed) round to, to sound, but the fact was, she had struck. As soon as her situation was ascertained, no time was lost in taking every measure to save the Grasshopper, by hauling oft; but being already in broken water, the thing was impossible ; and nothing but keeping right before the wind could have saved us from total destruction. After about a quarter of an hour, during which she was at times aground fore and aft, we succeeded in forcing her over the sand-bank, and fell into rather deeper water. The best bower was let go, and the sloop brought up ; but in five minutes after, she struck again, and continued so doing occasionally all the time we lay at an anchor. At her first striking, the Hero fired guns, and burned blue lights; but in the space of 15 minutes, she ceased, in consequence (I suppose) of her being totally disabled.
At daybreak, I perceived our situation to be inside the Northern Haeks, about five or six miles from the Texel Island, and about the same distance from the Helder Point—the Hero, a complete wreck, lying on her starboard broadside, her head to the NE and broken a-midships, the sea making a tremendous breach over her. By this time, all the small craft from the Helder were under way, and turning out of the harbour to our assistance. We in the meanwhile hoisted out the boats, and made an attempt at getting near the Hero; but all our efforts were fruitless, owing to the terrible surf around her, and we were obliged to abandon all idea of being able to render her any relief till the arrival of the Dutch schuyls, which were plying to windward. They, however, did not get nearer than about three miles of us before the ebb tide failed, and they were obliged to anchor.
At four, finding night fast closing in, and the weather very unpromising, and seeing no prospect of saving our own lives, but by surrendering ourselves to the enemy, we cut our cable, and made sail for the Helder Point, beating for the space of nearly three or four miles over the flats, after which we succeeded in getting round the Helder Point, where we struck to the Dutch fleet, under the command of Vice-admiral De Winter.
Only 8 of Hero’s 550 officers and men survived the ordeal.