On 16 June Spain formally entered the war against Great Britain, and concocting a plan with the French to attack either Portsmouth or Plymouth they contributed to a sixty-six strong fleet that assembled off the Lizard prior to entering the Channel under the command of the Comte d’Orvilliers. Meanwhile an army of twenty thousand men congregated at St. Malo and Le Havre to invade England once control of the Channel had been obtained. With a number of more capable admirals declining the command on political grounds, the inferior British fleet of thirty-five sail of the line fell under the orders of the aged Admiral Sir Charles Hardy. Fortunately for Britain, the allied commanders were incapable of finding an accord, whilst Hardy, preferring a strategic withdrawal, refused to join battle in August. The tactic was denigrated by many in his fleet including the proud seamen, but it proved successful when ship fever brought about by their long weeks at sea drove the allies back home.
Elsewhere in Europe a French attempt to invade the Channel Islands was thwarted by the efforts of Captain Sir James Wallace, whose small squadron chased the enemy back to Cancale Bay before defeating them on 13 May. Diplomatic relations with the Netherlands took a turn for the worse on 31 December when Commodore Charles Fielding intercepted and demanded to inspect a Dutch convoy bound for France, resulting in an exchange of gunfire with the Count Van Bylandt’s naval escort.
Earlier in the year the battle for the West Indies had assumed a new dimension with the gradual reinforcement of the Comte d’Estaing’s French fleet to counter the twenty-one British sail of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral the Hon. John Byron, who had arrived in the Leeward Islands from North America in January. The two met in a poorly conducted engagement off Grenada on 6 July which was technically won by the French, allowing them to take possession of that island.
Forsaking the opportunity to attack the weakly defended Jamaica, d’Estaing returned to North America in August where the British fleet had recently come under the inauspicious command of Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. The French arrival persuaded Major-General Sir Henry Clinton to evacuate Rhode Island in order to protect New York, which in view of its superb anchorage was a great loss to the British. During September – October an attempt by the French fleet and a Franco/American army to dislodge the British from Savannah failed, with d’Estaing being wounded when leading the assault.
Shortly afterwards the majority of the French fleet returned to its home base of Toulon, but without two squadrons under Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse and Rear-Admiral Jean Toussaint Guillaume La Motte-Picquet de la Vinoyère, which were sent to the West Indies. The latter officer had a brief engagement on 18 December with the Leeward Islands squadron under the temporary command of Rear-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, but could not prevent the capture and destruction of a fleet of his supply ships. The year ended with St. Bartholomew, St. Vincent and Carriacou having also passed into French possession, although given his opportunities d’Estaing could undoubtedly have achieved more. At least on the British side there were rich pickings for the ships from the Jamaican station which participated in the successful Omoa Campaign during September – October.
On the North American station the maverick Commodore Sir George Collier temporarily held command following the departure of the hopeless Rear-Admiral James Gambier and pending the arrival of the equally unworthy Arbuthnot, and from May to August he took the war to various American coastal works and privateer nests whilst also providing valuable support to the army in countering American operations.
In the Mediterranean the Spanish wasted little time in displaying their prime motivation for entering the war by laying siege to the Rock of Gibraltar, which was scarcely protected by the British Mediterranean squadron of one 60-gun ship, three frigates and a sloop. Meanwhile in Indian waters British forces all but expelled the French, whose presence was insignificant in comparison to the six sail of the line sent out under Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes during March.
In single ship actions the brilliant Captain Philemon Pownall of the frigate Apollo 32 led his men to victory against the similarly rated French frigate Oiseau on 31 January, whilst Captain George Montagu achieved a stunning success with the capture of the Spanish frigate Santa Monica on 14 September. A far more celebrated action off Flamborough Head on 23 September saw the British frigate Serapis captured by the American rebel commander John Paul Jones, and in what was probably the most brutal frigate engagement of this or any other war the Quebec was destroyed by fire in the process of engaging the French frigate Surveillante on 6 October. On 16 January a mutiny aboard the Prince George was put down by her acting-captain, whilst a young officer who would become the greatest in the navy’s history, Captain Horatio Nelson, first came to the nation’s attention attention when he helped prevent a major tragedy in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 1 June.
Sadly, the great explorer, James Cook met his death at the hands of Hawaiian natives on 14 February.