Battle of Sadras – 17 February 1782
Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes had not long effected the successful reduction of Dutch Trincomale, the principle bastion Fort Oostenburg falling with casualties of twenty-one killed and forty-two wounded on 11 January, when he returned to Madras on 8 February with his six sail of the line. Here he found reinforcements of another three sail of the line, the Hero 74, Monmouth 64 and Isis 50, late of Commodore George Johnstone’s unsuccessful expedition to capture the Cape.
Hughes also received news that a French expedition, consisting of three sail of 74 guns, seven of 64 guns, and two of 50, together with six frigates and eight vessels armed en-flute, had sailed into the Bay of Bengal in order to land three thousand troops on the east coast of India and dispute the British mastery of that sea. One of the 50-gun ships was the ex-British Hannibal, Captain Alexander Christie, which had been captured in passage having also been detached to the East Indies by Johnstone, and she was now under the command of the future Republican admiral, Justin Bonaventure Morard de Galles. The bulk of the French fleet consisted of five sail of the line that had left France in the previous spring under Commodore Pierre André de Suffren, and which had fought an indecisive action on their voyage south with Johnstone at Porto Praya on 16 April 1781 before reinforcing the Dutch defences at the Cape and sailing on to the Ile de France.
On the night of 14 February the French expeditionary force led by Suffren, who had been elevated to the command in the East Indies by the death of Rear-Admiral Comte Thomas d’Orves six days previously, came in sight of the British at Madras and anchored four miles away. Sailing with his men of war were six prizes recently taken from the British. The next morning the French approached the shore under easy sail, but recognising that the defences at Madras were too formidable to justify any form of attack Suffren decided to remove with his convoy to the south during the early afternoon, his intention being to join his ally, Hyder Ali, who had recently taken Pondicherry. At 4 p.m. Hughes decided to throw up his own defence and maintain station on the French overnight.
The next day the Monmouth, Isis and Seahorse managed to slip past the French men-of-war which had drifted towards the east and to attack the convoy, recapturing five prizes as a result. In addition the Isis took the French transport Lauriston, which carried aboard three hundred soldiers from the Lausanne Regiment, a number of senior officers, and a significant stock of gunpowder. The Isis also forced two other vessels to lower their colours but was unable to take possession of either before the signal of recall was put out by Hughes. Determined to immediately redress the situation, Suffren gave chase to the British, but his superior fleet was unable to make up any headway before the end of the day, by which time both fleets were steering towards the south-east.
The morning of the 17th found the fleets some six miles apart, with the French in the north-east holding the weather gauge, the winds being light. Hughes formed a line of battle on the larboard tack with the Eagle, Monmouth, Worcester and Burford in the van, the Superb in the centre, and the Hero, Monarca, Isis and Exeter in the rear. There were only occasional breaths of wind throughout the day, and with Hughes being anxious to keep off the wind to allow his line could close up it was not until the latter part of the afternoon that any offensive manoeuvres were possible.
As soon as he was able to prosecute an attack Suffren, with his flag aboard the Héros, formed his squadron into two columns and bore down from windward on the British fleet, his intention being to double up on Hughes’ rear and centre. Hughes, who had been battling in vain in the flaccid conditions for several hours to form a defensive line of battle abreast, instead formed line of battle ahead at 3.30. Within a half-hour the baffling wind carried the French ships into the British rear, with Suffren targeting Hughes’ flagship lying fifth in the line from to windward, whilst the British van lay ahead and becalmed.
The brunt of the action therefore fell upon the Superb, Hero, Monarca, Isis and Exeter, and with the latter ship becoming detached her position soon became precarious. Fortunately Suffren’s captains did not understand or did not wish to comply with his tactics of trying to force a melee, and although the Superb, the Exeter and the three others were subjected to a sustained battering from eight of the French ships they were not doubled as had originally been intended, only two of Suffren’s vessels passing to leeward of the British rear.
The Exeter’s defence in particular was most inspiring. Assailed at various times on either beam by the leading five French vessels, she fought off two fifty gun ships and a 64 for over two hours when they attempted to cut her off. As casualties fell all around him and the signal of distress flew from his ship’s battered masts, Commodore King announced that he would fight her until she sunk. At 6 p.m. the wind changed towards the south-east and allowed the British van to get into action, and the Hero came to the Exeter’s rescue. By then she had lost ten men killed and forty-five wounded, with Captain Reynolds being killed at King’s side, his blood and brains temporarily blinding the commodore.
The French had suffered equally however, in particular the Héros and Annibal, and at about 7 p.m. Suffren took advantage of the south-easterly breeze and the increasing darkness to discontinue the action and stand away to the north-east. Night came on, and with no advantage to either side the battle ended. Hughes returned to Trincomale to refit before returning to Madras on 10 March, whilst Suffren safely landed the remainder of his troops at Pondicherry where he drew up plans with Hyder Ali.
The total British losses in the battle were thirty-two men killed, including both flag captains, and ninety-five wounded, the French losses were thirty men killed and approximately a hundred wounded.
Ships participating and casualties:
|Superb 74||Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes||11+25|
|Flag Captain William Stevens (killed in action)|
|Exeter 64||Commodore Richard King||10+45|
|Captain Henry Reynolds (killed in action)|
|Monarca 68||Captain John Gell||1+5|
|Monmouth 64||Captain James Alms|
|Eagle 64||Captain Ambrose Reddall|
|Worcester 64||Captain George Talbot|
|Burford 64||Captain Peter Rainier|
|Hero 74||Captain Charles Wood||9+17|
|Isis 50||Captain Hon. Thomas Charles Lumley||1+3|
|Seahorse 32||Captain Robert Montagu|
|Manilla 14||Lieutenant William Robinson|
3 x 74 guns: Annibal, Héros, Orient:
7 x 64 guns: Sévère, Vengeur, Brilliant, Artésien, Sphinx, Ajax, Bizarre;
2 x 50 guns: Flamand, Hannibal:
3 x frigates: Pourvoyeuse, Fine, Bellone;