“Port a point. Steady!”
The ship crept through the water; not a sound from the crew, standing tense at their guns — only the faint sweet music of the breeze in the rigging, and the lapping of the water overside. Now they were level with the infantry column, a long dense mass of blue-coated and white-breeched soldiers, stepping out manfully, a little unreal in the haze of dust. Above the blue coats could be seen the white lines of their faces — every face was turned towards the pretty white-sailed ship creeping over the blue-enamel water. It was a welcome diversion in a weary march, during a war when every day demanded its march. Gerard was giving no orders for a change of elevation at the moment — here the road ran level for a half a mile, fifty feet above the sea. Hornblower put his silver whistle to his lips. Gerard had seen the gesture. Before Hornblower could blow, the centre main-deck gun had exploded, and a moment later the whole broadside followed with a hideous crash. The Sutherland heeled to the recoil, and the white, bitter-tasting smoke came billowing up.
“God, look at that!” exclaimed Bush.
The forty-one balls from the Sutherland’s broadside and cannonades had swept the road from side to side. Fifty yards of the column had been cut to fragments. Whole files had been swept away; the survivors stood dazed and stupid. The gun trucks roared as the guns were run out again, and the Sutherland lurched once more at the second broadside. There was another gap in the column now, just behind the first.
This, of course, is from C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novel, Ship of the Line, and is a graphic depiction of what a ship of the line could do to ground troops under the right combination of circumstances. Hornblower’s actions are fiction, could this happen in real life?
In January 1812, Captain Edward Codrington commanded a small squadron under Admiral Sir Edward Pellew operating along the Spanish coast consisting of his ship, HMS Blake (74), HMS Curaçoa (36, Captain John Tower), HMS Rainbow (28, Captain Gardiner Henry Guion), HMS Papillon (6, Commander James Hay), HMS Sparrowhawk (18, Commander James Pringle) and HMS Merope (10, Commander Edward Flin).
He had recently been involved in an ill-fated collaboration with Spanish army and guerrillas in an attack on Tarragona which had ended in a rout of the attackers and with Commanders Pringle and Flin captured by French dragoons. [Ed. Note: Interestingly, C. S. Forester changes the sequence of the fiasco at Tarragona and the attack on the French column in Ship of the Line].
On January 29, 1812 HMS Blake was watering at Arenys de Mar, north of Barcelona when word reached Captain Codrington that some 7,000 French troops were on the march from garrisons at Barcelona to converge on Spanish guerillas at Mataró. He directed Rainbow and Merope to sail to Mataró to aid the Spanish. On the morning of January 30, Rainbow and Merope encountered Curaçoa just off the town of Vilassar de Mar flying signal flags indicating she had observed the French army advancing along the coast road. The three ships then took the French under fire killing and wounding a number of troops and forcing them to fall back on Barcelona and take a more circuitous inland route to their objective.
When the French arrived at Mataró they found the hilltops occupied by Spanish guerillas and Blake and Papillon anchored off shore. The two ships took the French under fire but ran short of ammunition and eventually the French occupied the town. Pellew estimated that Codrington’s ships had killed or wounded some 600 men. There is no estimate of the number of deserters generated while the troops were not under the supervision of their officers.
In the confused melee at Mataró, Commander Pringle, who had been captured at Tarragona managed to escape. We don’t know what happened to Commander Flin.
As the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars progressed one notices, particularly in the Mediterranean, an increasing use of ships as sea power, as described by Alfred Thayer Mahan, where naval forces are used to influence events on land rather than in a strictly maritime role of blockading, commerce raiding, and naval supremacy. By 1812, the British navy had moved beyond cutting out merchantmen and destroying vulnerable coastal batteries to large scale raids, combining the marine detachments of several ships, and active cooperation with Spanish regular and guerilla forces.