Commodore Warren’s Squadron destroys the Volontaire – 23 August 1794
During the early days of August 1794, reports began to appear in the British Press that a force of up to a dozen French frigates was at large in the Channel, and that it had compelled the crack British frigate squadron commanded by Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren to retreat into Falmouth to seek reinforcements.
Putting out of the Cornish port on 7 August, Warren set a course a week later to search for the French frigate squadron to the north-west of the Scilly Isles where it had reportedly been cruising, but finding no trace of the enemy he then made for the Penmarks at the southern end of Audierne Bay on the coast of Brittany. By the time of his arrival on the French coast his squadron consisted of his pennant ship Flora 36, in addition to the Arethusa 38, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, Diamond 38, Captain Sir William Sidney Smith, Artois 38, Captain Edward Nagle, Diana 38, Captain Jonathon Faulknor, and Santa Margarita 36, Captain Eliab Harvey.
At 4 o’clock on the morning of 23 August, and with the breeze in the north-east, daylight revealed a French frigate and a brig to which Warren’s squadron immediately gave chase. The two enemy vessels were the frigate Volontaire 36, Captain Jacques Papin, which had only been launched earlier that year, and the brig Lazouski 6. Realising that the British squadron would concentrate all of their resources on running down the Volontaire, the Lazouski parted company from her consort and made good her escape.
As the chase of the Volontaire developed across Audierne Bay, the Flora and Arethusa were initially left in arrears by the other frigates of Warren’s squadron, and at midday their attention was otherwise diverted by the discovery of two corvettes off the Pointe de Raz at the northern extremity of the bay. Meanwhile the Diamond, Artois, Santa Margarita and Diana got up with the Volontaire and formed a semi-circle around her, such that Captain Papin was unable to double the Penmark Rocks and was instead obliged to anchor within them at 2 p.m. The four British frigates continued their approach regardless and maintained a steady fire until 4 p.m., when accepting that his position was untenable Papin cut his cables and ran the Volontaire aground onto the coast near the Penmark Roads. As the tide was on the ebb, Warren called off his ships lest they too grounded, leaving the Volontaire stranded on the rocks. Soon the French frigate’s pumps could no longer hold the water at bay and so Captain Papin landed what supplies he could and evacuated his men to the shore.
Whilst the attack on the Volontaire had been in progress, Warren and Pellew with the Flora and Arethusa had given chase to the two corvettes, which vessels would prove to be the Alerte 16 and Espion 18. After being pursued under fire into Audierne Bay, the enemy vessels anchored off the Gamelle near the mouth of the River Goyen. Nothing daunted, the Flora and Arethusa continued to approach, leaving the French little option but to run themselves ashore under the cover of three batteries. A mutual gunfire continued until about 6.15 when the French masts went by the board and as many men as could escape from both vessels fled ashore. Warren then ordered his boats to put themselves under Pellew’s command and row in to set fire to the grounded corvettes, but upon finding scores of dead and wounded aboard the defeated enemy the humane decision was taken to let them be, although fifty-two men who were not casualties were taken prisoner. Warren’s subsequent dispatch advised that both vessels had been bilged and scuttled by the rocks that had been seen extending upwards through their hulls, although once he was back at sea the French were able to salvage the Espion later that night.
During the day’s action the Diamond had suffered five men wounded and the Santa Margarita one. Casualties on the French side were not reported, other than that the second captain of the Volontaire had lost both legs and his life was despaired of. The French defence had been both brave and active, and when Captain Papin was later tried by the French authorities for the loss of the Volontaire he would be found not guilty of any misconduct despite pressure from the Republican zealots.
On the morning of 29 August Warren’s squadron arrived at Falmouth, bringing with them two West Indiamen that had been recaptured from the French, and here the prisoners were landed and marched to the nearby Kegillick Prison. In his subsequent dispatch to the Admiralty from the Carrick Roads, Warren erroneously gave the name of the destroyed French frigate as the Félicite 40.
As a curiosity, both of the French corvettes engaged by the Flora and Arethusa had previously been in the British service, the Espion having been captured just four and a half weeks before by the Tamise 32 off the Scilly Isles whilst under the command of Commander William Hugh Kittoe, and the Alerte having been taken on 14 May by the Unite 32 off Ireland when commanded by Commander Charles Smythe. Once salvaged, the Espion would fall into British hands again on 3 March 1795 when she was captured off Brest by the Lively 32, Commander George Burlton, whereupon she was bought back into the Navy as the Spy.