The Channel Fleet Campaign – April-August 1782

by | Oct 24, 2017 | 1782, American Revolutionary War 1776-1783 | 0 comments

 

Viscount Howe

To the great relief of the navy and the country as a whole, the fall of Lord North’s government enabled the hitherto dissident Vice-Admiral Lord Howe to take command of the Channel Fleet on 2 April. At last the country’s most important line of defence had a commander worthy of it, and Howe’s re-employment was further enhanced by the appointment of the able Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington as his second-in-command, and the brilliant Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt as a junior admiral. At the Admiralty the newly ennobled Admiral Viscount Augustus Keppel replaced the long-time first lord, the Earl of Sandwich, but Vice-Admiral George Darby, who’s wise if uninspired leadership had carried the Channel Fleet through the previous two summers, declined to serve as Howe’s second-in-command and retired ashore.

There would be much for the new regime to do, and Howe, who would be allowed a significant hand in devising home fleet strategy, eagerly proposed to set about the enemy wherever he could. The need to protect the rich West Indian colonies from allied aggression meant that the commanders in those waters had to be well supplied with effective fighting vessels, and this was to the detriment of the home fleet which, even once all the available ships could be made ready for sea, would barely number more than thirty sail of the line. Consequently Howe and the Admiralty had to carefully husband a below-strength fleet in order to defend the British trade and shores from invasion by the vastly superior allied fleets, to thwart the desperate Spanish attempts to capture Gibraltar, and if possible to prevent the French from reinforcing their own commanders in the East and West Indies.

On 5 April the government issued orders for a division of twelve sail of the line and three frigates under the command of Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington to patrol off the French coast between Ushant and Belle Isle. Intelligence indicated that they could well intercept any of a French convoy bound for the East Indies from Brest, an allied squadron escorting six Dutch East Indiamen from Cadiz to Lorient, or a squadron of ten sail of the line and a convoy under Admiral Jean-Toussaint-Guillaume de La Motte-Picquet de La Vinoyère. In the event of meeting a superior enemy force Barrington was advised that he should avoid an engagement.

After sailing from Spithead on 13 April, Barrington’s squadron was about seventy miles south-west of Ushant on the 20th when at 1 p.m. it came upon a French convoy of seventeen sail bound for the East Indies. This was under the escort of two sail of the line; the Protecteur 74, Captain le Comte de Soulanges, which was carrying a large amount of bullion, and her smaller consort the Pégase 74, the Chevalier de Sillans, crewed by some seven hundred men. Also in company was a frigate. The Pégase had been launched only nine days before, and had been at sea but one day under the charge of an inferior crew.

Barrington ordered a general chase, and by sunset on a windy, hazy evening the crack Foudroyant 80, commanded by the determined Captain John Jervis, had forged ahead of her consorts and was out of sight. At about 9.p.m the French convoy scattered, a half hour later the frigate spoke to the leading sail of the line and bore away, and at 10.15 the bullion-laden Protecteur communicated with the Pégase, whereupon the two French men of war fled on differing courses. Approaching rapidly, Jervis kept the Pégase ahead of him in the darkness and at around midnight, after surmising that the Frenchman intended to put his helm up and rake the Foudroyant, he instead put his own helm to port and forty-five minutes later was able to rake the Pégase. A furious engagement followed in which the heavily-laden Pégase was unable to open her lower gun-ports, and in which her crew of raw landsmen failed to reach their proper stations. Captain de Sillans tried to board the Foudroyant but his ill-prepared attack was easily repulsed, and three quarters of an hour into the action a young and most promising midshipman, Richard Bowen, led a retaliatory attack that boarded the enemy on her larboard quarter and forced her surrender.

The Foudroyant enters Portsmouth Harbour with her prize, the Pegase.

The Pégase was in a desperate state, having suffered eighty men killed and forty wounded, and she lost her mizzen and foretopmasts shortly after striking her colours. Jervis, with a wound to the temple that had temporarily blinded him in the eye, was one of only five men wounded on the British ship. Such was the tempestuous weather that the Foudroyant lost two boats whilst trying to put a prize crew aboard the capture, but the Pégase was later taken possession of by the Queen 98, Captain Hon. Frederick Maitland. Even though the overwhelmed Pégase had only kept her colours flying long enough to allow her consort to escape, the arch-Whig Jervis was surprisingly and somewhat controversially rewarded for his capture with a knighthood by the new Whig government. Equally surprisingly, given his bold resistance in the face of such adversity, Captain de Sillans was suspended by the French navy after an inquiry into his own conduct.

Meanwhile thirteen of the nineteen French ships in convoy had also been captured, including the Actionnaire 64, armed en-flute, which was taken on the 22nd by the Queen after a fourteen-hour chase and one single broadside that inflicted thirty-four casualties. One thousand troops were also taken prisoner from the convoy, and the impact on the French war effort in the East Indies would prove to be significant. By the 25th Barrington’s squadron was back at St. Helens having been forced northwards by poor weather, and here he joined Howe who five days earlier had raised his flag aboard the Victory 100 at Spithead, having also been promoted admiral and created a viscount.

With the threat of a French replenishment to the East Indies temporarily averted, the country’s next concern was the Dutch fleet which was reported to number anything from nine to fourteen ships of the line. On 6 May the cutter Flying Fish, Commander Charles Craven, came in with news that she had seen the Dutch anchored off the Texel, and with a valuable convoy congregating in the Baltic, and with fears of Dutch raids upon the east coast rife, it was decided to meet this threat head-on. Departing on 10 May for the Texel with Barrington and nine sail of the line, and with other vessels racing to join him as best they could, Howe passed Harwich four days later and arrived off the Netherlands on the 16th. Here he found that the enemy had retreated into port on the news of his sailing, so after briefly blockading the Dutch he left eight sail of the line under Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart Ross to maintain a watch on their movements, and adhering to instructions from the government dated 25 May he returned to Portsmouth on 4 June with his flagship Victory, Barrington’s Britannia and the Edgar.

In the meantime Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt’s squadron of seven sail of the line, a frigate, and two cutters had departed St. Helens on 3 May for Ushant to replace Barrington’s division. After appearing off that island two days later they remained on station without incident for the rest of the month, bar a brief sojourn in Torbay from the 18th to 24th. Kempenfelt then returned to Spithead on 5 June, and as the Admiralty had received intelligence the day before that twenty-seven allied sail of the line were congregating at Cadiz it was decided that a concentration of the British fleet was now required. Three days later Howe and Barrington came out of Portsmouth to join Kempenfelt off Spithead, and with the Dutch showing no inclination of sailing the Admiralty decided to divert another four sail of the line from Ross off the Texel to Howe.

Unfortunately an influenza epidemic that had been sweeping through Europe now reached Ross’ ships off the Netherlands, and having left two frigates to maintain a watch on the Dutch fleet he came in to the Downs on 17 June with all nine of his sail of the line, together with a sick-list of some fourteen hundred men. Such was his own condition that he immediately struck his flag and went ashore. On the same day news was received that the allies had sailed from Cadiz, but as Ross’ ships drifted around to Howe at Portsmouth the whole fleet became ravaged by influenza, and for the next three weeks it remained largely inactive and ill. The only departures were the Vigilant 64, Captain John Leigh Douglas, and three frigates which were ordered to cruise to the west of Cape Ortegal in the hope of gaining intelligence on the intentions of the allied fleet, and if possible intercepting an American-bound French convoy.

Admiral Don Luis de Cordova

The combined fleet consisting of thirty-two sail of the line under the orders of Admiral Don Luis de Cordova had actually sailed from Cadiz on 4 June, and three weeks later it had captured nineteen ships from the out-going Newfoundland convoy some four and hundred and fifty miles west of Ushant, although the escorting men-of-war under Vice-Admiral John Campbell had been able to escape. Off Ushant on 8 July Cordova made a rendezvous with eight ships under La Motte-Picquet from Brest, bringing his strength up to forty. He was now at the mouth of the Channel and represented not only a threat to the British coast, but also to the Jamaica trade fleet which was daily expected. There was also some concern that his arrival in the Channel might induce the Dutch to come out and join him.

After a false start on 28 June that saw him return to St. Helens because of adverse winds, Howe sailed again on 2 July. Two days later he was off Plymouth where he put out an alert for all available ships to join him, by the following day he was off Torbay, and on the 7th he set off to the west again with twenty-two sail of the line. On 9 July the government received firm news on the progress of the Jamaica convoy when Captain Hon. Thomas Windsor of the frigate Lowestoft 32 appeared at the Admiralty. He confirmed that the convoy had cleared the Gulf of Mexico having sailed from Port Royal on 20 May under the escort of Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker’s flagship Sandwich 90, the Russell 74, Captain James Saumarez, and the Intrepid 64, Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy. He also confirmed that the French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, who had been defeated at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April, was a passenger aboard the Sandwich. The safe arrival of the convoy now exacerbated the requirement to confront Cordova’s forty sail of the line, and when news came through that the Dutch fleet had come out on 10 July, a government recommendation that Vice-Admiral Mark Milbanke and Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes take ten sail of the line to the Texel was deferred. All the ships available clearly had to join Howe.

On the evening of 12 July, his force supplemented by another three smaller sail of the line, Howe fell in with the allied fleet which now numbered thirty-six sail of the line, some forty miles to the south-east of the Isle of Scilly. The allies enjoyed the weather gauge and a numerical superiority of eleven sail of the line, and they were stationed between the Channel fleet and the expected Jamaica convoy which Howe had learned from the Cormorant 12, Commander John Melcombe, was approaching the coast of Ireland. Using all his considerable skill, Howe brilliantly avoided a battle by standing to the north and negotiating a passage between the Isles of Scilly and Lands’ End, thereby getting to windward and to the west of the enemy. By the next morning he was out of sight of the bewildered allies, and battling northerly winds, and with his fleet having increased to thirty sail of the line by new arrivals, he made for a position some two hundred miles west of the south-west coast of Ireland to await the Jamaican convoy.

As it happened, the delay to Howe’s progress caused by the northerly winds prevented him from falling in with the Jamaica convoy, and Parker’s ships sailed past him. It was only on returning towards the Isles of Scilly on 2 August with the intention of ensuring the allies were not blocking the Channel, that Howe learned the convoy had passed through. Two days later he anchored in Torbay, whereupon he was informed that the convoy had arrived safely at Portsmouth on 29 July. After sailing for the Lizard he met with further reinforcements which in the event were not required, for by now the allied fleet had dispersed in a gale and the Spanish had retired home to resist the expected re-provisioning of Gibraltar, one that following his disappearance on 13 July they even thought Howe might be attempting already.

Meanwhile there had been further excitement to the west of Ushant when on 18 July the Vigilant and the Suffolk 74, Captain Sir George Home, together with several frigates, had fallen in with some one hundred and fifty sail of the homeward-bound French West Indian convoy. This was later stated to have been under the escort of four French 74-gun ships, although it was also likely that the escorts were simply the Expériment 50, the Sagittaire 50, and two frigates. Regrettably, although the two British sail of the line were able to cut off fourteen ships from the convoy they were chased off without taking possession of any, and the whole got safely into Brest.

On 14 August Howe anchored at Spithead, and whilst the government flirted with the idea of sending him after the missing Dutch fleet he began preparing for his next task – the re-provisioning of Gibraltar. On 1 September Vice-Admiral Milbanke and Commodore William Hotham did sail from the Downs with fifteen sail of the line to search for the Dutch, but arriving off the Texel on the evening of the 3rd they found them safely harboured, so with the valuable Baltic convoy no longer at risk they returned to Spithead four days later.

Vice-Admiral Barrington’s Squadron that sailed in April:

Britannia 100 Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington
Captain Benjamin Hill
Royal George 100 Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt
Captain Henry Cromwell
Edgar 74 Commodore William Hotham
Captain John Moutray
Queen 98 Captain Hon Fredrick Maitland
Union 90 Captain John Dalrymple
Ocean 90 Captain Hon Charles Phipps
Foudroyant 80 Captain John Jervis
Fortitude 74 Captain George Keppel
Goliath 74 Captain Sir Hyde Parker
Alexander 74 Captain Lord Longford
Bellona 74 Captain Richard Onslow
Sampson 64 Captain John Harvey
Artois 40 Captain John MacBride
Prudente 38 Captain Lord Charles Fitzgerald
Monsieur 36 Captain Hon. Seymour Finch
Recovery 32 Captain Hon. George Cranfield Berkeley
Crocodile 24 Captain Albermarle Bertie

Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt’s squadron that sailed in May:

Royal George 100 Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt
Captain Martin Waghorn
Bellona 74 Captain Richard Onslow
Courageux 74 Captain Hon. Charles Phipps
Fortitude 74 Captain George Keppel
Goliath 74 Captain Sir Hyde Parker
Vigilant 64 Captain John Leigh Douglas
Sampson 64 Captain John Harvey
Monsieur 36 Captain Hon. Seymour Finch

Vessels employed off the Texel – starred ships remained there after Howe returned to port on 4 June:

Victory 100 Admiral Lord Howe
Captain of the Fleet Commodore Hon John Leveson-Gower
Flag Captain Henry Duncan
Britannia 100 Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington
Captain Benjamin Hill
Ocean 90* Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross
Captain John Bourmaster
Edgar 74 Commodore William Hotham
Captain William Cayley
Queen 98 Captain Hon Fredrick Maitland
Princess Amelia 80* Captain Billy Douglas
Cambridge 84* Captain John Holloway
Alexander 74 Captain Lord Longford
Berwick 74 Captain Hon. Keith Stewart
Dublin 74* Captain Archibald Dickson
Ganges 74 Captain Charles Fielding
Raisonnable 64 Captain Lord John Augustus Hervey
Rippon 60* Captain Thomas Durell
Panther 60* Captain Thomas Piercy
Buffalo 60* Captain George Robertson
Bienfaisant 64* Captain John Howorth

Ships employed to meet allied threat during July:

Victory 100 Admiral Lord Howe
Captain of the Fleet Commodore Hon John Leveson-Gower
Flag Captain Henry Duncan
Britannia 100 Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington
Captain Benjamin Hill
Royal George 100 Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt
Flag-Captain Martin Waghorn
Edgar 74 Commodore William Hotham
Captain William Cayley
Ocean 90 Vice-Admiral Mark Milbanke
Captain John Bourmaster
Princess Amelia 80 Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes
Captain Billy Douglas
Romney 50 Commodore John Elliot
Atlas 98 Captain George Vandeput
Queen 98 Captain Hon. Frederick Maitland
Princess Royal 98 Captain Jonathon Faulknor
Union 90 Captain John Dalrymple
Blenheim 90 Captain Adam Duncan
Royal William 90 Captain John Carter Allen
Cambridge 84 Captain Hon. Keith Stewart
Foudroyant 80 Captain Sir John Jervis
Dublin 74 Captain Archibald Dickson
Courageux 74 Captain Lord Mulgrave
Fortitude 74 Captain George Keppel
Goliath 74 Captain Sir Hyde Parker
Alexander 74 Captain Thomas Farnham
Berwick 74 Captain Hon. Charles Phipps
Bellona 74 Captain Richard Onslow
Vengeance 74 Captain John Moutray
Ganges 74 Captain Charles Fielding
Suffolk 74 Captain Sir George Home
Belleisle 74 Captain John Williamson
Crown 64 Captain Samuel Reeve
Ruby 64 Captain John Collins
Asia 64 Captain Richard Rodney Bligh
Raisonnable 64 Captain Lord John Augustus Hervey
Bienfaisant 64 Acting-Captain Henry Cromwell
Sampson 64 Captain John Harvey
Vigilant 64 Captain John Douglas
Panther 60 Captain Thomas Piercy replaced by Captain Robert Simonton
Buffalo 60 Captain John Holloway