Periodically, we’ve noted instances where actual events enter naval fiction set during the Age of Sail will little more than the names of people and ships changed. Sometimes the actual events are toned down for the novel because of the implausibility of the real event, such as Cochrane taking El Gamo or Nelson using one Spanish first rate as a bridge to board and take a second first rate.
Another incident ties together Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, Lieutenant Lord Ramage, and Commodore Horatio Nelson. Fog and the Spanish Fleet.
In the short story, Hornblower, the Duchess, and the Devil, which is included in C. S. Forester’s Mr. Midhipman Hornblower, Hornblower, commanding a prize en route to England, finds himself enshrouded in fog, a fog which also includes the Spanish fleet and is subsequently captured and imprisoned at the fortress at Ferrol. In Dudley Pope’s Ramage, Lieutenant Lord Ramage, commanding the cutter HMS Kathleen, finds himself in the same unpleasant circumstances. He however, evades imprisonment, gains key intelligence on the Spanish fleet then in port in Cartagena, and is able to warn Admiral Sir John Jervis of their intentions.
The real story is just as strange.
Though Spain had entered the war against Revolutionary France as a part of the First Coalition, the Spanish proved to be marginal allies. The inept and corrupt Spanish army was swiftly sent packing south of the Pyrenees and by 1794 the French army had taken San Sebastián in Spain. In 1795, the Spanish Empire reached a peace treaty with France. This was followed up by a treaty of alliance, the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, signed on August 19, 1796 which, in addition to transferring ownership of the Louisiana Territory to France, created a join command structure for the French and Spanish armies, effectively placing the Spanish army under French command. More significant was the treaty article that required Spain to place in the service of the “calling power” 15 ships of the line and 10 frigates, manned and ready for sea, within three months of the requisition.
The Spanish fleet, based at Cadiz and consisting of 19 ships of the line and 10 frigates, sortied on 1 October and passed through the straits of Gibraltar. The apparent intent was to launch a surprise attack upon the British fleet concurrent with the declaration of war. They stumbled upon a small convoy under Rear Admiral Robert Mann and pursued it into Gibraltar. At this point, the Spanish admiral, Don Juan Francisco de Lángara y Huarte, seems to have lost any hope of achieving a strategic purpose beyond consolidating his fleet with 7 ships of the line in Cartagena and waiting for further instructions.
To no one’s surprise, this alliance was followed on October 5 by a declaration of war by Spain upon Britain. This was a devastating blow for Britain’s strategic position in the Mediterranean. So long as Spain remained allied or neutral, the British navy based in Corsica and Elbe could support Austria and the Italian states and it could raid French commerce in the Mediterranean keeping naval stores and other vital supplies from reaching France. Now those forward bases became untenable. They were evacuated and the British fleet relocated to Lisbon and Gibraltar.
On December 16, Jervis sailed for Lisbon leaving the final evacuation of Corsica in the hands of Nelson who had shifted his commodore’s pennant from HMS Captain to the frigate HMS Minerve on December 10. That evacuation was completed January and Nelson and his small squadron, split into three groups to better avoid a Spanish fleet, headed for the relative safety of Gibraltar. On 1 February, the Spanish fleet, now under Admiral Jose de Cordoba y Ramos (described by a fellow admiral as “not very bright”) left Cartagena to rendezvous with the French fleet at Toulon. He had some bad luck and was struck by a Levanter as he passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and was driven far out into the Atlantic.
Admiral Jervis had timely warning of Cordoba’s sailing and was able to effect a rendezvous with five ships of the line sent by the Channel Fleet as reinforcements. This gave Jervis 15 ships of the line to deal with 26 Spanish opponents.
Nelson arrived in Gibraltar on February 10. On his way to Gibraltar, Nelson had looked in at Cartagena and knew the Spanish fleet was out. He also affected the exchange of two captured navy officers. Lieutenants Thomas Masterman Hardy and Jonathan Culverhouse. Both had been officers on Minerve, Culverhouse the first lieutenant and Hardy the second, and were sent aboard the Spanish frigate Santa Sabina which Minerve and taken to manage her while she was under tow from Minerve. Unfortunately, a Spanish squadron intervened and Minerve had to cut Santa Sabina adrift in order to escape, leaving Hardy and Culverhouse behind.
These two officers brought out a substantial amount of information on the condition of the Spanish fleet, accomplishing overtly a lot of what Lieutenant Ramage did through the services of a Cockney picklock.
Nelson departed Gibraltar on February 11 in search of Jervis and his fleet. He was chased by two Spanish ships of the line who had been waiting outside Gibraltar’s bay and set out in hot pursuit of Minerve. Just when Minerve was gaining a sailor went overboard and Minerve slowed to deploy a boat, commanded by none other than Lieutenant Hardy, to retrieve the man. Unfortunately, not only did the man drown but the Spanish ships were closing at a rapid pace and Hardy’s boat could not row fast enough to catch up to Minerve. Hardy was on the verge of being made prisoner yet again. In a characteristically Nelsonian gesture, he declared, “By God, I’ll not lose Hardy! Back the mizzen topsail!” Hardy was able to bring his exhausted boat crew aboard and Minerve set all sail and outdistanced the Spanish pursuers.
But more adventured followed. For this I’ll defer to John Sugden’s Nelson: a dream of glory, 1758-1797:
Fog as well as night shrouded La Minerve as an easterly wind, known as a levanter, took her into large Atlantic swells. Then suddenly, in the early hours of the 12th, large shapes loomed like specters in the murk about them. Two were fairly close, one on either flank. The British had sailed into a squadron of ships, perhaps even a fleet, but which fleet? As Cockburn [Ed note: Cockburn was captain of La Minerve while Nelson was commodore of the squadron] and Nelson strained eyes and ears, they realised that the signals were unfamiliar. Mysterious flashes stabbed through the darkness, muffled guns boomed dolefully in the fog, and voices were heard – Spanish voices. Nelson had actually sailed into the main Spanish battle fleet.
Nelson gingerly had Minerve edge her way through the Spanish formation and when dawn broke it was nowhere to be seen.
This odessey ended on February 13 when Nelson was able to locate Jervis and pass on to him the location of the Spanish fleet as well as Hardy’s and Culverhouse’s intelligence setting the stage for the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.
hornblower, ramage, nelson