Apollo v Oiseau – 31 January 1779
Few captains in the navy were held in such high esteem as Captain Philemon Pownall of the frigate Apollo 32, and the fact that one of his protégés, Edward Pellew, would become the finest frigate captain of his generation was due in no small measure to the instruction he enjoyed when a young officer under Pownall’s guidance.
Captain Pownall began the year of 1779 cruising off Brittany, where in the morning of the last day of January his command fell in with a convoy of ten French vessels a mile or two off the town of St. Brieuc. Upon moving in to investigate, Pownall found that the enemy actually consisted of nine merchantmen and an escort frigate, the Oiseau 32, Lieutenant le Chevalier de Tarade. These vessels had left Brest the day before and were proceeding to St. Malo.
The Apollo had been launched sixteen years before to the design of the renowned Thomas Slade, and she had recently come out of Plymouth Dock after being coppered and refitted. She carried a crew of two hundred and twenty men and was armed with twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her upper gun-deck and six 6-pounder cannon on her forecastle and quarterdeck. Pownall had been her captain for exactly two years, most of which time had been spent in North American waters. Her forthcoming opponent, the Oiseau, had first been commissioned in 1770 and was armed with twenty-six 9-pounder cannon on her main-deck and six 4-pounder cannon on her forecastle and quarterdeck. Although out-gunned, she had a marginally larger crew of two hundred and twenty-four men.
Having identified her, Pownall steered to intercept the Oiseau which was on the opposite tack, and not long after midday he opened fire with a full broadside. The Frenchman hoisted his colours, and the Apollo luffed up and joined the Oiseau on the same tack within musket shot to leeward, the two frigates now being about a half-mile from the rocks of St. Brieuc. The convoy, notwithstanding the fact that there were some armed vessels amongst it, took the opportunity to flee for the shoals and rocks of Brehat Island.
The action progressed with the two frigates yardarm to yardarm, and with the Apollo’s bowsprit occasionally piercing her adversary’s foremast shrouds. With the cannon fire stilling the wind the French were unable to escape from the British frigate’s ascendancy, and after approximately an hour and a half Lieutenant de Tarade had just four men with him on his quarterdeck, the Oiseau’s main-top and mizzen masts had been shot away, her hull was ridden with shot, and her cannon had been silenced. A lucky shot had already carried away the French fleur de lys, and when there was no response to his demand for surrender Pownall sent a boarding party over to the Oiseau which easily took possession of her.
During the action the British had lost six men killed and twenty-two wounded, two of them mortally, whilst French losses were reported as ‘considerable’, and were undoubtedly in excess of the British number. Both commanders were among the injured, Pownall having received a ball to his left breast, and his two lieutenants has also been wounded. Fortunately the calm weather allowed the Apollo’s men to keep the badly damaged Oiseau afloat, and she was carried in to Plymouth.
His capture saw Captain Pownall further embellish his already glowing reputation as a brilliant officer, but sadly he did not live long to gain any further laurels, for on 15 June 1780 he was killed during an action with the French privateer Stanislas 26 in the Channel. The Oiseau was bought into the navy and following service in the remaining years of the American Revolutionary War she was sold in 1783.