The Channel Fleet Retreat – August 1779
On 12 April France and Spain signed an alliance and began preparing for an invasion that would bring Britain to her knees and enable the two catholic powers to share in the resulting sequestration of her overseas possessions. Plans were agreed for the creation of a combined fleet that would gain control of the Channel to facilitate a crossing by an army, consisting of over thirty thousand troops and some four hundred transports, that was gathering at Le Havre and St. Malo under the orders of Marshal Noël Jourda de Vaux.
With only 52,600 troops in Britain, over half of whom were militia, the one significant line of defence against the allied threat was the navy. Even so, with twenty sail of the line serving under Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron in the Leeward Islands there were barely thirty capital vessels in home waters to counter a possible allied force of up to seventy, not to mention the fact that the majority of these ships were short-handed and poorly manned.
To make matters worse, the navy was still reeling from the politically charged dissension that had broken out following the Battle of Ushant and the subsequent court-martials of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel and Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser. On 18 March Keppel had been ordered to strike his flag as commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet after informing the King that he could no longer serve under Lord Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty. Regrettably, in this hour of adversity the other eminent Whig admirals including Vice-Admiral Lord Howe and Keppel’s second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland, could not be persuaded to come to the colours.
As a result the Government was forced to recall the politically neutral sixty-four year-old Admiral Sir Charles Hardy from the governorship of Greenwich Hospital to defend the shores. Hoisting his flag as commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet aboard the Victory 100, Captain Henry Colins, the moderately competent, calm and conciliatory Hardy was fortunate that the brilliant Captain Richard Kempenfelt accepted the position of captain of the fleet on the King’s insistence. However, with Vice-Admiral George Darby commanding the van and Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby the rear, Hardy was otherwise blessed with little obvious talent to support him.
Hardy’s initial instructions were to blockade the Brest fleet before it could put to sea, whilst he was also given secret orders to detain any Spanish ship approaching a French port, war not having yet been declared between Spain and Britain. Unfortunately the delay in manning the ships and then in despatching Vice-Admiral Darby with ten sail of the line to escort the four hundred-strong North-American convoy and Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot’s four sail of the line beyond the southern coast of Ireland prevented Hardy from sailing for Brest. Indeed, by the time that Darby returned to Portsmouth on 10 June the seventy year-old Comte d’Orvilliers had already put to sea six days earlier with the Brest fleet of twenty-eight sail of the line in the hope of intercepting the North American convoy. Having failed to find these rich pickings the French commander-in-chief had then assumed a position a week later off Sisarga Island on the north-west coast of Spain, near Coruna, to await a rendezvous with a Spanish fleet of thirty-six sail of the line. Here his fleet was supplemented by two sail of the line from Toulon, but of his new allies there was to be no sign for several weeks.
News reached the Admiralty on 11 June of the Brest fleet’s departure, and immediately an express was sent down to Portsmouth ordering Hardy to set sail. After replenishing Darby’s squadron and commissioning every other available large man-of-war the old admiral was eventually able to take twenty-eight sail of the line with a number of frigates to sea from Spithead on 16 June, on the very same day that Spain formally declared war on Britain. Hardy then undertook a variety of short cruises to the Lizard whilst on the lookout for the French fleet, and although these failed to yield any sign of the enemy conflicting intelligence received by Hardy and the Admiralty advised that huge fleets had been seen off Cape Finisterre, Ushant and Ferrol. A westerly wind then forced Hardy to retreat to Torbay on the evening of 5 July, whereupon he decided to seek further orders from the Admiralty in London.
On 9 July a royal proclamation was issued in Britain to the effect that an invasion was imminent. The coastal towns prepared for the evacuation of their citizens, and to move their horses and cattle inshore; a boom was placed across Plymouth Sound, and plans were made to sink block ships to keep the enemy out. In the Thames all the navigation aids were removed, and across the country beacons were prepared for lighting in the event of the invasion. Meanwhile wealthy merchants and government ministers fretted over the safe arrival of the valuable and vital Jamaican and Leeward Islands’ convoys. At Torbay, Hardy remained for over a week before receiving instructions that indicated he should not wait for events but rather put to sea immediately, and accordingly he set sail once more on 14 July.
Over the next eleven days the Channel fleet battled against contrary winds which prevented its southing, and when Hardy learned that a Franco/Spanish rendezvous had in all likelihood taken place he decided to take station off the Lizard. Again contrary winds retarded his progress, and on 25 July he reappeared off South Devon from where he despatched a letter to the Admiralty advising that he would remain at Torbay until further orders were received. The government and the king believed that this anchorage did not afford adequate protection to their three great concerns, England, Ireland and the inward-bound convoys, hence detailed instructions were despatched by Lord Sandwich ordering Hardy to put to sea again, and to patrol to the south-west of the Scilly Isles, only returning to port if absolutely necessary.
By now d’Orvilliers had been joined off Corunna on 2 July by eight Spanish sail of the line from Ferrol, and finally on 23 July, having been delayed by contrary winds, the bulk of the Spanish fleet from Cadiz commanded by the seventy year-old Don Luis de Cordova. The allied plan was to gain control of the Channel to facilitate the capture of the Isle of Wight as a base to assault and destroy the principal British naval port at Portsmouth. Should that operation prove successful then further raids would be undertaken on the British mercantile ports, in particular Cork, Bristol and Liverpool. But already the French ships were ridden with disease, the Spanish were resentful that d’Orvilliers had been given the command of the combined fleet, and almost half the French supplies had been consumed whilst awaiting their allies. A further week was then lost whilst the two fleets underwent compatibility training in signalling and manoeuvres, and when the merged force did eventually set sail for the Channel the sickness aboard the French ships had already began to infect their Spanish counterparts.
Back off the south-west coast of Britain further contrary winds had prevented Hardy’s sailing for his advised position off the Scilly Islands, although at least some governmental concerns had been mitigated with the safe arrival of the four million-pound Leeward Islands convoy on 30 July, and the Jamaica convoy a week later. The delay had also allowed Hardy to add another eight ships to his force, bringing it up to thirty-six sail of the line, although as with the French fleet many of these vessels were short of provisions and their crews suffering from sickness. Only by 12 August was the Channel Fleet on its prescribed station off the Scilly Islands. A day earlier the allies had passed Ushant, and by the 14th they were off the Lizard and closing in on the British coast.
On 15 August the first encounter occurred when the Marlborough 74, Ramillies 74, Isis 50 and sloop Cormorant 14, which were sailing to join Hardy, fell in with the combined fleet some forty miles south-east of the Scilly Isles. The British ships managed to effect their escape, the Marlborough only just, and her first lieutenant, Sir Jacob Wheate, was sent back to Plymouth aboard the Cormorant, Commander Roddam Home, with news of the allied fleet’s position. After reaching port on 16 August he set off overland to warn Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty, arriving the next day. The First Lord, having received other intelligence of the French fleet’s sickness, decided that bold measures were now called for, and he at once ordered a concentration of all available British forces in the Downs where Rear-Admiral Francis William Drake commanded. Assuming that Hardy would sail back up the Channel and engage the enemy when the winds allowed, Sandwich began dreaming of a pincer movement that would result in an allied defeat to rival that of the Spanish Armada.
At 1 p.m. on 16 August the allies appeared off Plymouth, a monstrous force some fifty-six sail of the line and thirty frigates strong, with transports and smaller craft by the score. Already forewarned by Lieutenant Wheate’s arrival earlier in the day, the local commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Lord Shuldham, had sent warning vessels along the coast, and he now ordered Commander Hon. George Berkeley of the Firebrand, who ironically was Keppel’s cousin, to put out and reconnoitre the allied fleet. Not all the senior officers in Plymouth shared Shuldham’s clear thinking, for whilst the local naval commissioner, Captain Paul Ourry, apparently slipped into panic-stricken mode with the suggestion that he should set the docks alight, the army commander, General Sir David Lindsay, asked to be immediately relieved of his position on health grounds. Fortunately order still prevailed amongst the other ranks; the militias flooded into town, artificers from the dockyard were armed, and the garrison was ordered to action stations.
The allies enjoyed their first success with the capture of the Ardent 64, Captain Philip Boteler, as they tarried off Plymouth on the 17th. She had departed that port with other reinforcements on the 14th, but having seen her private signals correctly answered had sailed happily into the midst of the Franco/Spanish fleet three days later. Upon being intercepted by the Junon 32, Captain Charles Bernard de Marigny, the Ardent was hammered with two broadsides before she even had time to raise her colours. A desperate rush to clear for action ensued, in the midst of which the seas poured in and forced her officers to shut her lower gun-ports. The Junon was able to rake her mercilessly and was presently joined in the assault by the Gentille 32, Bellone 32 and Surveillante 32. Aboard the Ardent there was utter confusion, and she had barely got into action before somebody lowered her colours. Such cowardice was contagious and her surrender inevitably followed, five men having been killed and eight wounded. Somewhat harshly Boteler was later dismissed the service for losing his command, little account being taken of the fact that the ship had only been in commission for one week, her complement included four hundred pressed men and landsmen, and the remaining one hundred seamen had displayed mutinous intentions at their want of clothing.
With over a hundred miles of sea room and the weather-gauge over Hardy, the allies were magnificently positioned off Plymouth to effect their original intentions, but in this position of strength d’Orvilliers suddenly received instructions from the French government to prepare to land the army at Falmouth. This was an order he immediately questioned. Whilst he awaited a response from Paris he loitered off Plymouth, but on 19 August an easterly gale forced his fleet out to sea again, and with it blowing strong for a number of days he was eventually carried out of the Channel. Six days later he received intelligence that the British fleet was off the Scilly Islands, and conferring with his senior officers it was decided that the allies should attempt to bring the British to battle post-haste before they were further weakened by illness and a lack of provisions.
When old Admiral Hardy did gain intelligence from the Southampton 32 on 17 August that the allied fleet had been seen off Cornwall he decided that caution was the order of the day. With the thirty-eight sail of the line, three 50-gun vessels and seventeen other ships he now had under his command he battled the easterly winds to head up for the Channel. By 29th he was off Land’s End where a convoy of French supply ships was mistaken for the outer part of the allied fleet, and finally on 31 August some thirty miles south-west of Land’s End, and with the wind having veered to the south, the allied fleet was discovered to the west.
Hardy was determined not to allow a battle to develop and so he used a sea-fog to bear away from the allies, intending to invite them up into the Channel and towards Drake’s reinforcements. By the evening only a few enemy ships were still in sight, and when he anchored off the Eddystone on 1 September the allied fleet was no longer in sight at all. With the weather remaining hazy Hardy continued his retirement up the Channel on a northerly wind and by the 2nd was off Portland Bill, his intention being to replenish at St. Helens the next day.
Hardy’s strategy, to keep his force intact and avoid an engagement, had been developed following a persuasive argument advanced by the Comptroller of the Navy, Sir Charles Middleton, and several other senior officers. For many in the fleet however it represented a pathetic retreat before the enemy, and they longed for a Hawke or a Boscawen who in the same circumstances would have brought about a battle. At Torbay the most troublesome opposition politician, Charles James Fox, yearned for his political ally, Admiral Keppel, to assume command of the fleet, whilst at sea the men of the Royal George tied their jackets over the eyes of the first-rate’s figurehead to prevent it witnessing the ‘cowardly retreat’. In retrospect, had Hardy learned of the disorder, disease and discord prevalent in the allied ranks he may well have attacked them, but instead he knew only of the invasion barges waiting on the French coast, and understood that an army could not be ferried across the Channel whilst his fleet remained at large.
With Hardy clearly disdaining a battle the Comte d’Orvilliers and Don Luis de Cordova began to disagree on almost everything. Unwarranted fear took the place of enterprise, d’Orvilliers began thinking about the equinoctial gales, of the rampant ship-fever which had even carried away his own son, a lieutenant, of the difficulties facing an invading force on the approach of autumn, and of the lack of provisions and even of pilots who were familiar with the British coast. On 3 September the invasion was thrown over and the fleet ran for home, reaching Brest a week later, and then taking four more days to get through the Goulet into port. Shortly afterwards the Spanish decided to follow their own course, and they sailed away to join the siege of Gibraltar. Behind them the bodies of so many small-pox ridden Spanish and French sailors washed ashore on the English coast that those living nearby refrained from eating fish for months thereafter.
Meanwhile Hardy with thirty-nine sail of the line had anchored at Spithead on the afternoon of 3 September to refit, and Lord Sandwich came down in person two days later to take control of affairs. Believing the allied fleet still to be off the coast, and fearing that it might attempt to blockade the Channel fleet in its home base, the first lord personally directed the fleet’s replenishment to ensure that it would be back at sea as soon as possible. Ashore, Portsmouth began filling up with opposition politicians who were anxious to re-invoke the split in the navy caused by the Keppel-Palliser affair, but happily the old fractures did not re-appear, and more importantly neither did the allies. By 7 September some notion of the final French retreat had been received, and although a small force was detached under Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart Ross with his flag in the Romney 50 to protect the Channel Islands it soon returned when it was clear that there was no threat. Hardy did take the fleet consisting of thirty-seven sail of the line to sea on 22 October, but this was basically an exercise to re-establish the public’s faith in the navy, and after sheltering from the weather in Torbay for three weeks it returned to Spithead to snug down for the winter on 24 November.
Opinion as to Hardy’s behaviour and tactics during the allied fleet’s cruise remained divided. To many he had achieved his objective of preventing an invasion without putting his fleet at risk, and he had done so on his own intuition whilst refusing to be influenced by the opinion of the politicians and the nation. To others a great opportunity of inflicting a crushing blow on the enemy so early in the war had not been taken, and certainly this lesson were not lost on the likes of Captains Jervis and Duncan, who when their opportunities came eighteen years later did not hesitate to attack their enemy.
British Fleet as of October: