UPDATE: Excellent comment below that takes a bit of a different tack on this engagement.
It is difficult to read the history of the war at sea during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars and not have that phrase constantly cross your mind. Over and over the ships of the British navy attempt extraordinary deeds and succeed. Many times they do so because of courage and daring. Often they succeed because the French, whether on ships or manning coastal defenses, seem to be defeated before the battle is joined.
Take for instance the case of the 36-gun 12-pounder frigate l’Egyptienne.
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.
HMS Speedy (14) under Lord Thomas Cochrane takes the Spanish frigate El Gamo (32)
A quick perusal of this blog will show that I’ve shied away from writing much on major figures of the Age of Sail. While I have biographical entries on lesser known figures, like Sir Henry Duncan and Midshipman Flinders, there is no story on Horatio Nelson or, perhaps the most swashbuckling figure of the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Thomas Cochrane.
My reasoning is grounded equally in two sensibilities, practicality and snobbishness. Practicality because these two men have been the subject of an immense amount of study and literature and there is little I could add to anyone’s understanding of either. Snobbishness because these two men, etc. etc.
I’ll be deviating from this a bit as I delve more deeply into Dudley Pope’s Nicholas Ramage novels because Pope, probably because of his background as a chronicler of the Royal Navy, pulls in a significant number of incidents from the lives of these two men as plot elements.
Now to the story.
On occasion combat at sea during the Age of Sail could be a display of sailhandling virtuosity, or a tour de force of surprise, which caused the enemy to strike with little bloodshed. More often than not, however, ship to ship combat resembled nothing so much as two drunks having at each other with pool cues in a parking lot.
The October 6, 1779 engagement between HMS Quebec and the French frigate, Surveillante, off Ushant was much more the latter than the former. Continue reading
On the morning of 21 January 1807 HMS Galatea (38), Captain George Sayer, was off the coast of Venezuela when she sighted a sail steering for Guaira near Caracas. Galatea put on more sail and as they closed, identified her as a man of war. They were seen at the same time and the unidentified ship changed her course for Barcelona, some 160 miles to the east.
By noon Galatea was becalmed while the strange sail had the benefit of a slight breeze and two hours later her top-gallant sails were scarcely above the horizon. Under ordinary circumstances one would assume that the chase made an escape but this wasn’t an ordinary circumstance.
The British Navy during the Age of Sail produced more than it’s share of exemplary combat commanders.
One of those was certainly Vice Admiral Sir Richard Goodwin Keats. A man of whom Nelson wrote, “I esteem his person alone as being equal to one French 74…”
Keats proved he was equal to much more than a French 74 in the aftermath of the Battle of Algeciras.
On the morning of October 22, 1812 the USS Vixen, a brig armed with twelve 18-pound carronades, departed its base at St Mary’s, Georgia, for a 30-day cruise raiding British commerce in the Caribbean. Vixen was commanded by 32 year old George Washington Reed, youngest son of George Washington’s adjutant general and had a crew of 110.
The crew was fairly uneventful from a combat and prize money point of view and on November 22, Vixen was homeward bound and two days out of St Mary’s. Then the adventure started.