Fiasco: HMS Circe and Consorts vs. Cygne

We’ve chronicled in several places the success of British ships in cutting out expeditions and small boat actions. One is left in awe of the casualness with which British sailors took on impossible odds and carried the day. Often they did it with few if any casualties.

Cutting out an enemy ship, or an enemy convoy, was a high risk activity and fraught with danger. Because repeated success breed hubris, there seems to have only rarely been a consideration made that an action was ill advised. Because of that sometimes things did not go according to plan.

On December 12, 1808 a small convoy consisting of Cygne (16) and two schooners were nearing the end of a Transatlantic voyage which had entailed running the Channel Fleet’s blockade of its home port, Cherbourg, and now evading British ships and privateers who were systematically strangling French possessions in the Caribbean. Their run of good luck came to an abrupt end. As they were rounding Pearl Rock, on the northern tip of Martinique, about 30 miles from their destination of Fort de France they were spotted by Morne Fortunee (12), commanded Lieutenant John Brown. Morne Fortunee was formerly the French privateer Le Regulus and seems to have served as the inshore lookout for a small squadron hovering off Martinique in search of prizes.

His signal brought down the squadron consisting of HMS Circe (32) commanded by Commander Francis Augustus Collier, HMS Stork (18) under Commander George Le Geyt, HMS Epervier (16), Commander Thomas Tudor Tucker, and the schooner HMS Express (8), Commander William Dowers.

I can’t find a lot of detailed information on Captain Collier, but it is fairly obvious that he was a favorite of his admiral as well of Lord Nelson. Collier had gone to sea in 1794 at age 11. He was a midshipman on Nelson’s HMS Vanguard at the Battle of the Nile and moved with Nelson to HMS Foudroyant, remaining with him until the Peace of Amiens. He was promoted to lieutenant as soon as he was eligible, in 1803, and a mere two years later he was made commander. This expedition finds him in command of a post ship and leading a squadron of five ships. Clearly this was intended to gain post rank for him as well as to put a substantial sum of prize money into his pocket.

The race was on as the Cygne and her charges headed for the relative safety of St. Pierre while Collier and his squadron tried to prevent that from happening. The alarm had been raised on Martinique and now the shore was lined with French troops and field pieces set on protecting the three French ships.

Stork was first on the scene and set after the trailing French schooner which, due to vagaries of the wind, was being towed. Being cut off from St. Pierre the crew of the schooner ran her ashore under cover of a battery of four field guns. Collier made the signal to “close with the enemy” and “engage in succession”. Circe followed by Stork and Morne Fortunee closed within pistol shot, about 25 yards, of shore and silenced the protecting field guns and drove the French troops from the shore. Morne Fortunee and Epervier were given orders to maintain watch on the grounded French schooner. Collier took the other ships and went after the Cygne and the remaining schooner which was also covered by four batteries of field guns and a large number of troops.

Collier decided to cut out Cygne. The plan was for Circe, Stork, and Express to close in on the two French ships and use their artillery to suppress the fire from Cygne and drive the French away from the beach. In the meantime, Circe would launch its barge and two cutters and 68 men under Circe’s First Lieutenant Charles Henry Crooke, the three boats were commanded by Circe’s purser, Mr. Collman, her sailing master, Mr. Smith, and her carpenter, Mr. Thomas. I only mention these latter three as a point of interest in reference to novels set during the Age of Sail. The stereotypical purser is a weaselly slicky boy, the carpenter is invariably superannuated and toothless, and the sailing master is usually a superlative seaman who is reluctant to place his ship in harm’s way. You won’t find these men engaging in fighting in fiction other than Nicholas Ramage’s long serving sailing master Southwick. The three boats from Circe were to be joined by boats from Stork.

The three ships moved inshore, they held their fire until musketry from shore began to inflict casualties on the ships’ crews. The cannonade succeeded and Lieutenant Crooke and his boats arrived within striking distance of Cygne but they were some distance ahead of the boats from Stork. He decided to board Cygne alone. As Collier drolly notes in his report of the incident:

and it is with extreme concern I have to add, that their gallantry did not meet with its due reward: they were beat back with dreadful slaughter;

He was bloodily repulsed. One boat was captured, one was sunk and 56 of the 68 men were either killed, wounded, or captured. Among the losses was a severely wounded Lieutenant Crooke, who was wounded four times, and the purser Collman who was “dangerously wounded.”

Collier retired to lick his wounds.

On the evening of the 13th, the last ship of Collier’s little squadron, HMS Amaranthe (18) under Commander Edward Pelham Brenton, arrived and Collier decided to have another go at Cygne and the remaining schooner. The next morning they could see that Cygne was using sweeps as well as being towed by its boats to get as close as possible underneath the shore batteries protecting St. Pierre. Brenton volunteered to go in after her. Using sweeps plus the boats from Circe and Stork augmented by extra men from Express a slow motion chase was underway. Around 10 am, after two hours of pursuit, Cygne managed to ground herself under the shore batteries. Amaranthe was undaunted. Under fire from shore batteries and small arms she worked her way in close to Cygne and opened fire with grape and canister. The French crew quickly quit and made for shore in their boats. Circe followed Amaranthe in, directing fire at the shore batteries. The remainder of the group, Stork and Express, stood off and added to the cannonade. Amaranthe lost one killed and five wounded in the fight, the other vessels lost two killed and five wounded.

Amaranthe launched her boats, along with those of Circe and Stork under Amaranthe’s First Lieutenant James Hay to destroy the now abandoned Cygne. They boarded her under fire, found her bottom was severely damaged, and fired her. Brenton then volunteered to destroy the schooner grounded near Cygne. Again the boats went out, this time under Circe’s acting First Lieutenant George Robinson. Robinson was the second lieutenant of Amaranthe who was replacing the wounded Crooke. They boarded and fired her, also, but not without loss. Amaranthe’s sailing master, Joshua Jones, was severely wounded. Express lost one man killed and three wounded. Stork lost one man killed and one wounded.

Once this was done, the same boats boarded the grounded schooner being watched by Epervier and Morne Fortunee and found her bottom severely damaged. As she had been unloaded under cover of supporting fire from shore they simply left this boat on the beach.

By any standard this was a fiasco. Three French ships had been destroyed at the cost of about 80 British officers and men. For what? The two schooners and Cygne were loaded with flour. Circe, in particular, was hard hit losing about a quarter of her complement on the 12th as well as her first lieutenant, sailing master, and purser. Amaranthe lost her sailing master.

Several of these men will resurface of the years. Thomas Tudor Tucker, who commanded Epervier during this episode, took command of HMS Cherub (18) the next year. He apparently was a popular officer as all of his officers and most of his men elected to transfer into Cherub with him. He was made post in 1811 but was still in command of the below the rate Cherub when he teamed up with Captain James Hillyar in HMS Phoebe (36) to beat USS Essex (32) into submission off Valparaiso, Chile.

The “interest” of Francis Augustus Collier of Circe paid off. He was made post on the day Amaranthe arrived to help cut out Cygne and the two schooners, we don’t know if there was buyer’s remorse when the full story of this Pyhrric victory hit the Admiralty. Be that as it may, he was knighted in 1815 for his service in the West Indies and went on to a distinguished career in the Far East.

Commander George Le Geyt of Stork returned home in that vessel in 1812 and was made post in August of that year. Upon promotion he had to leave Stork and was never able to obtain another command. He remained on half pay rising to rank of rear admiral in the infamous “yellow squadron” in 1846.

William Dowers of Express was made post in 1814. He was given command of HMS Talbot (20) and died in Antiqua in 1816.

Lieutenant Charles Henry Crooke never totally recovered from the wounds he received on December 12. He was made commander in August 1815 but was retired with a pension because of his wounds in February 1816.

Edward Pelham Brenton who distinguished himself in Amaranthe was made post soon after the battle. He briefly commanded HMS Pompee (80) and HMS Belleisle (74) before succeeding his brother, Jaheel Brenton, in command of HMS Spartan (38). When Spartan paid off in 1813 he was unable to find further employment. He dabbled in social work and achieved some degree of notoriety for his historical works which were rather thinly sourced and caused public conflicts with some of the men who felt slighted by them.

Commander John Brown, who’s Morne Fortunee spotted Cygne and her charges and called for help, never achieved post rank. On January 9, 1809, Brown and Morne Fortunee were off St. Pierre, Martinique doing what they did best, cutting out enemy shipping. It was a very calm day and Brown had sent a boat inshore to cut out a coaster. The attack wasn’t successful and the boat was returning with two or three wounded. Suddenly a squall arose from landward, took Morne Fortunee completely aback, and drove her underwater stern first. Forty-one of sixty-five men perished. The only survivors were the men in the returning boat.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Lord Ramage Novels, Naval Operations, Smal Boat Actions

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