I decided to do one more Lord Cochrane piece before moving on to something else. This episode predates The Boats of HMS Impérieuse by a year. At the time Cochrane was commanding the 32-gun 12-pounder frigate HMS Pallas with a crew of about 220 and was part of a British squadron blockading the port of Bordeaux. Cochrane had made a habit of raiding deep up the Gironde estuary and had a crew well drilled in small boat work. Cochrane had even had a galley constructed to his own specifications for the express purpose of cutting out enemy shipping and raiding coastal installations.
On April 5, 1806, Pallas was anchored just off the Cordouan light, pictured above, at the mouth of the Gironde. Cochrane received word from local informants that two French corvettes were anchored some 20 miles farther up the river and naturally decided to cut them out.
The plan was equal parts simplicity and audacity.
As dusk approached, Cochrane launched his boats. Because of the size of the two ships he was attempting to cut out he sent a total of 180 sailors and marines on the raid keeping a mere 40, including himself, aboard Pallas. The raiding party was under his first lieutenant, John Haswell. After reducing Pallas’ crew to the barest number necessary to get underway in case of an emergency, the expedition would row 20 miles up a river into the heart of France, take two warships, escape on the ebb tide and meet up with Pallas at the Cordouan light.
There was heavy fog that night which concealed the approach of the cutting out expedition. Around 3 am the watch aboard Tapaguese, a 14-gun corvette armed with the French equivalent of long nines and with a crew of 95, was startled as Pallas’ boarders surged across her deck. There was a brief skirmish, those French who could swim jumped overboard and the rest surrendered.
By now the tide was on ebb and it Haswell decided against trying to cut out what he thought was a second corvette. This, in retrospect, was an inspired decision because there were not one but two corvettes nearby and both were now fully alert as a result of the brief gunfire on Tapageuse.
As Haswell ordered Tapageuse to make sail down the river to rendezvous with Pallas, the other two French ships set out in pursuit of Tapageuse. Haswell, of course, had more than enough men to crew the prize and engaged in an hour long cannon duel with his pursuers before they gave up. He lost three men wounded and Tapageuse was only lightly damaged.
In the meantime, Cochrane was facing his own challenges.
As dawn broke lookouts on Pallas spotted three ships approaching from windward. He challenged them hoping they were friendly but the lack of response and their maneuvers indicated they were French. A shortening of range and more light revealed them to be three French corvettes: the Garonne (20), the Malicieuse (16), and the Gloire, (20).
The actions of the French corvettes indicate that they suspected Pallas was severely undermanned. While a fully manned Pallas could handily deal with this threat, a Pallas with a crew of 40 was in grave peril of being taken.
Cochrane ordered his topmen to reef the sails with rope yarn and untie the usual ropes used to reef the sails. Then, on signal, they cut the rope yarn enabling all the sails to unfurl simultaneously thereby giving the illusion that Pallas was fully crewed and the corvettes had been lured into a trap. The French corvettes fled with Pallas in pursuit banging away with her bow chasers – the only guns aboard that Cochrane could man with 40 men.
The captain of the Garonne realized that Pallas was about to overhaul him and ran her up on the beach. Pallas holed her with the chase guns ensuring that she could not be floated again and continued the pursuit.
Malicieuse fell next. Her captain also elected to beach his ship rather than be taken. When Malicieuse went ashore she dismasted herself and Pallas slowed down to knock holes in her hull. The destruction of Malicieuse enabled the last corvette, Gloire, to escape out to sea.
As Cochrane made his way back to the Cordouan light to rendezvous with the Tapageuse he quite by accident found himself positioned to intercept Gloire as she had doubled back to reach sanctuary under the batteries along the Gironde. Now Gloire’s captain also elected to beach his ship and Pallas finished the destruction.
The rendezvous with Tapageuse went off without a hitch.
Being successful was not enough, however. Cochrane was in bad odor with the Admiralty. Tapageuse was not bought into the service and so no prize money was forthcoming. For reasons which are more than a little unclear, the Admiralty also refused to pay head money for the 80 or so French prisoners brought out or gun money for the destruction of three corvettes and the capture of the Tapageuse leaving Cochrane and Pallas heroes but no richer.