Following Sir George Rodney’s return from France, where he had flown to escape his creditors, Britain was at last able to place one of her most skilful, if unpopular, admirals in charge of a major fleet. Appointed commander-in-chief of the strategically crucial Leeward Isles station, Rodney was given orders to sail from England, relieve Gibraltar, which had held out under General George Augustus Elliott since July 1779, and thereafter take the campaign to the French in the West Indies. He achieved the first part of his mission on 16 January by defeating a Spanish fleet in the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent, bringing much joy to a beleaguered nation in the process.
Arriving in the Leeward Islands during March to supersede Rear-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, Rodney subsequently fought the indecisive Battle of Martinique with the esteemed Vice-Admiral Louis-Urbain de Bouënic, the Comte de Guichen on 17 April. During the remainder of the campaign from May to July the French largely avoided battle bar a week of skirmishes in the former month, and despite being joined by their Spanish allies they were unable to take any advantage of their numerical superiority. On 14 September, a month after de Guichen had returned with a convoy to Europe, Rodney arrived at New York with half of his fleet to assist in the fight against the rebellious American Colonies. Instead he sailed into a bitter confrontation with Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot whose command he usurped, and over the next two months the admirals bickered relentlessly to the detriment of the British war effort. Rodney finally returned to the Leeward Islands in December to discover that in October the ‘Great Hurricanes’ had destroyed two sail of the line in addition to six frigates, five other vessels, the Barbados dock, and the town of Bridgetown.
In North America, prior to his dispute with Rodney, Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, with General Sir Henry Clinton, received the capitulation of Charleston in South Carolina on 11 May. Leaving Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis with eight thousand troops in the Carolinas, they retired north with four sail of the line and four thousand troops to keep a watchful eye over a French squadron of seven sail of the line that had arrived on 12 July at Newport, Rhode Island. Meanwhile on 13 July, a British squadron of six sail of the line, which had become available following Rodney’s defeat of the Spanish fleet in the Moonlight Battle, came into New York under the command of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, and this reinforcement effectively put an end to any Franco/American intentions on that city.
In European waters the French and Spanish failed to concoct any worthwhile scheme for attacking Britain, and despite a numerical supremacy of sixty-seven to twenty-four sail of the line in favour of the allies the year ended without a shot being fired between the main battle fleets. With Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington refusing to take command of the Channel fleet when Admiral Sir Charles Hardy died on 18 May, and with both Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel and Vice-Admiral Lord Howe being excluded by their politics, the elderly and ineffective, if thorough seaman, Admiral Francis Geary, became commander-in-chief. On his resignation through ill health in the autumn, Barrington prevailed upon Admiral Thomas Pye to assume temporarily command of the fleet pending the appointment of Vice-Admiral George Darby. Throughout its cruises and changes of commander-in-chief the Channel Fleet had to do little from June to December other than protect the incoming and out-going convoys, but it was still unable to prevent the Allies capturing one such convoy on 9 August, consisting of sixty ships bound for the Indies and North America. Earlier in the year, on 24 February, Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby’s division of the Channel fleet had captured the French sail of the line Protée 64 whilst returning from the relief of Gibraltar.
In February Russia, Sweden and Denmark formed the League of Armed Neutrality in order to protect their right of trade with Britain’s enemies. This force did not attempt any belligerent action against Britain, and neither was any reciprocal action contemplated, but when the strategically important Netherlands showed signs of joining the league Britain decided to act. The capture of incriminating Dutch papers by the frigate Vestal on 10 September provided the Government with the justification it required, and accordingly on 20 December Britain declared war on the Dutch before they had officially been accepted into the League of Armed Neutrality.
In the Mediterranean the Spanish continued to lay siege to Gibraltar, but a fireship attack on 7 June was repulsed by the efforts of the naval officers on the Rock led by Captain John Harvey.
There were no actions of note against the French in the East Indies during the year, but Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes did destroy the rebel Rajah Hyder Ali’s naval force.
In minor engagements Captain Hon. William Cornwallis had a brief and inconclusive action in the Windward Passage with Rear-Admiral Jean Toussaint Guillaume La Motte-Picquet’s larger French squadron on 20/21 March, and he then performed skilfully on 20 June to save his squadron from another larger French force, this time commanded by Commodore Charles Louis d’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay. In the Mediterranean Captain Charles Henry Knowles of the sloop Porcupine endured separate inconclusive but bloody encounters with two superior enemies from 20 to 30 July, and off Ushant the Flora 36, Captain William Peere Williams, surprisingly forced the surrender of the French frigate Nymphe 32 on 10 August despite being initially out-gunned. Captain Sir James Wallace’s eventful war continued when his command, the Nonsuch, captured the crack French frigate Belle Poule on 16 July, whilst Captain John MacBride of the Bienfaisant 64 took the notorious French privateer Comte d’Artois of a similar strength off Ireland on 13 August. Unfortunately Captain Evelyn Sutton of the Isis 50 failed to capture the Dutch ship Rotterdam 50 in another equal-sided action on 31 December, and he was brought to a court-martial as a result.On 15 June the brilliant Captain Philemon Pownall lost his life during an engagement with an obstinate French privateer off Ostend.