Glatton v French Frigate Squadron – 15 July 1796

by | Apr 6, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


During the American Revolutionary War, Captain Henry Trollope had provided valuable service in command of the experimental Rainbow 44, a ship carrying a mixture of 68, 42 and 32-pounder carronades, with his efforts being crowned by the capture of the French frigate Hébé 40 in 1782. For some time thereafter, bar a short peacetime commission, he had lived the life of a country gentleman, and this absence from active service had continued through the first two years of the French Revolutionary War.

Sir Henry Trollope

In May 1795 the 39-year-old Trollope found himself recalled to the colours and placed in command of another experimental vessel, this being the Glatton 56, which was one of six East Indiamen (the others being the Warley, Earl of Abergavenny, Ceres, Hindostan and Royal Charlotte) which had been bought into the service with the intention of fitting them out with a mixture of twenty-eight 18-pounder cannons and twenty-eight 32-pounder carronades to serve in the Downs and the North Sea. Having persuaded the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer, of the merit of replacing the 18-pounder cannons with 68-pounder carronades aboard the Glatton, Trollope quickly got the ship ready for service with the assistance of a private dockyard at Deptford. Manned by a nominal crew of three hundred and twenty men, his reward for his tenacity was that at the end of April 1795, the Glatton, together with the Hindostan, became the only two of the six ex-Indiamen to be commissioned, with the other vessels being converted into troop ships.

The Glatton was ordered to join Admiral Duncan’s North Sea fleet in the summer of 1795, where Trollope often found himself flying a commodore’s broad pennant in command of detached squadrons. By July 1796 one chance of glory had passed him by when the possibility of engaging the Dutch Cape expedition had been prevented by the arrival on the scene of the circumspect Rear-Admiral Thomas Pringle, and so when another opportunity arose, Trollope was to seize it with both hands.

Having sailed from Yarmouth with a westerly wind on the afternoon of 14 June in adherence with the orders of Vice-Admiral John MacBride to relieve Captain Henry Savage of the Albion 74 in command of the squadron off Helvoetsluys, the Glatton was off the Dutch coast at 1 p.m. the next afternoon when about a dozen miles away in the south-west she discovered six sail running towards her on a soft southerly breeze. Surmising that the strangers, who soon came to anchor, were probably Savage’s squadron, light winds and calms nevertheless prevented Trollope from getting close enough to establish whether his private signal had been correctly answered.

By about 8 p.m. with a breeze rising from the north-west, and with Goree Church in sight of the Glatton to the south-east, the strangers had weighed and began to form a line of battle off the Brill Lighthouse with their bows facing the north-east. Occasionally backing their mizzen topsails to maintain station, they began to stand towards the Glatton whilst exchanging signals that were incomprehensible to Trollope and his officers. Further away, it could be seen that another smaller frigate and a brig were coming up from the leeward to join the six vessels. At about 8.30 the strangers wore towards the south-west in line ahead. Peering through their telescopes, Trollope and his officers concluded that they had chanced upon an enemy squadron which they, incorrectly, identified as two large frigates of 44 guns, one of 36 guns, another of perhaps twenty-eight guns, a corvette of 22 guns and a cutter of 10 guns.

With the Baltic convoy of some three hundred vessels due to pass by at any time, Trollope decided to engage the enemy, and clearing for action, he bore down upon the opposing line. As it happened, the estimation of the stranger’s strength was by some measure overstated, for French sources would later confirm that the entire squadron of eight vessels consisted of the cut-down 74-gun Brutus 46, together with the frigates Incorruptible 40, Rassurante 38, and Républicaine 24, the corvettes Malacieuse 18, and Torche 16, and the brig and cutter Ceres 14 and Festin 14. This squadron had sailed from Flushing earlier that day to cruise in the North Sea under the orders of Commodore Bescond.

By 9.45 the Glatton had come up with the three rearmost French vessels, but rather than engage them, Trollope set his stall on the next ship in the line, which was the largest and presumed commodore, and which was now in fact the second in the line after the vessel ahead of her had dropped some forty yards away to leeward. Trollope steered the Glatton into the gap between the two, and in manoeuvring up on the commodore’s starboard quarter just before 10 p.m. at a distance of about twenty yards, he demanded a surrender in French. This in turn was refused in what was described as ‘bad English’, the commodore’s broad pennant was immediately revealed at the same instant as the French colours, and the firing began from all vessels. As was their usual practice, the French aimed their shot high to disable their opponent, whilst the Glatton returned it with her heavy carronades firing into the enemy hulls.

Suffice to say, with the Glatton’s men under the direction of the second lieutenant, Alexander Schomberg, rushing from side to side to load her carronades, and with picked men being left to point and fire the ‘smashers’ so that the rate of fire could be maximised, the Glatton’s massive broadsides soon began to produce devastating results. What impact the 68lb and 32lb shot had on the French ships at such short range could only be imagined, for the enemy would have had little inkling that the ship sailing into their midst was so heavily armed.

Whilst the Glatton and the commodore continued to engage as they ran ahead, a new peril came into play when the leading French frigate tacked with the apparent intention of bringing the rest of the line around with her and thereby placing them in a position to drive the Glatton onto the Brill Shoal to leeward. She paid for her manoeuvre when she came up on the Glatton’s weather beam and received a brutal broadside from the British larboard carronades that inflicted many casualties and stove in her side, leaving her to pass on. All the while, the other large frigate was firing into the Glatton’s lee quarter, and the cutter was hanging off her stern throwing in howitzer shells, to which Trollope’s men could not respond as their ship did not carry any stern chasers. The bold cutter even had the temerity to demand that the Glatton strike her colours before she was driven off by two volleys from the marines. Meanwhile, at a greater distance, the other frigate and brig coming up from leeward also sent in a few broadsides before passing on.

After the engagement had been running for about twenty minutes, Trollope was alerted by his pilot to an approaching shoal, to which he defiantly responded that he should only go about when the French commodore drove aground. When moments later the commodore did tack to join his consorts who had already gone about, the Glatton took the opportunity to pour in a raking fire as the pennant ship hung in her stays, causing a great deal of damage.

At about 10.45 the Glatton stopped firing and took to making repairs, for such had been the persistence of the French fire that it was estimated some five hundred shot had been fired through the her sails with perhaps a bare half-dozen into her hull. One witness described the enemy ships as ‘masters of their trade’, and this was illustrated by the fact that the Glatton’s running and standing rigging had been torn to ribbons, all her stays bar the mizzen had been cut or mangled, her lower sails were shredded, and her masts badly damaged. When she was undertaking these repairs the French continued to fire at her stern, but their shot landed short.

Captain Strangeways of the Marines was mortally wounded in the engagement.

Now the Glatton also had to come about on the starboard tack, which given the damage she had sustained aloft took some time. Once she wore ship in what was now shoaling water at 11.15, she came under fire from the long guns of the smaller frigate and the two corvettes, to which her stubby carronades could not effectively respond. At midnight one of the French frigates crossed her stern, but her raking fire flew harmlessly overhead, and with the larger frigates fleeing to leeward from the earlier savagery of the Glatton’s carronades, the engagement ceased entirely.

Throughout the night, as the Glatton hugged the coast out of Trollope’s concern to retain the weather-gauge and keep the enemy away from port, her crew toiled to make good their repairs, but it was 7 o’clock the next morning before they could even contemplate renewing the action. As daylight broke it revealed the French standing to the eastward in a closed-up line to leeward, and apparently little the worse for wear aloft. The same could not be said for their hulls, and it could be seen that men on stages hanging over the sides of the ships were plugging the shot holes. However, the commodore did not seem inclined to renew the fight despite the Glatton’s evidently vulnerable condition, and when the wind shifted in their favour, the French put off for Flushing. Trollope followed them within random shot in the hope that Captain Savage’s squadron might appear on the scene, but by 9 a.m. on the 17th the enemy were within ten miles of the port and a stiff westerly wind obliged the damaged Glatton to haul away from the lee shore.

If they harboured any regrets at not being able to unite with Savage’s squadron in defeating the French squadron, at least Trollope and his men could comfort themselves in the knowledge that a dangerous force had been temporarily cleared from the North Sea, and that the threat to the Baltic convoy had been removed. Later it would be asserted by men from the Flushing fishing fleet that up to four of the French frigates had been severely damaged, and that one had suffered seventy casualties; however, a claim that one of the frigates had sunk in the harbour appears to have been improbable, and an eminent French historian would come to state that the squadron’s return to port was merely to facilitate repairs to the main mast of the Incorruptible.

During the engagement, and as a consequence of the tenacious French fire being aimed principally at her upper works, the Glatton had seen just two marines wounded, including Captain Henry Ludlow Strangeways, who although badly injured by a ball in the upper part of his hip had returned to the deck to extol his men with a tourniquet over the wound until loss of blood had caused him to feint. He had been carried below and would later be taken to Chatham Marine Barracks where it was decided that the ball could not be removed without immediate threat to his life. After much torment he died in early November, leaving a widow and child. The other wounded man, Corporal William Hall, had a musket ball pass through his thigh bone but survived.

Captain Trollope’s dispatch to his senior officer, Vice-Admiral MacBride, was dated 21 July from Yarmouth Roads, and it included a number of inaccuracies. Oddly, he dated his departure from Yarmouth as the 15th of July instead of the 14th, and he also stated that the action had occurred on the 16th rather than 15th. He also described the enemy squadron as consisting of six frigates, of which the commodore’s vessel had mounted near fifty guns, two others appeared to have sported 36 guns, and the three remainder about 28 guns. Maybe in the gloom of the night and the heat of the battle his eyes had deceived him.

Whilst French opinion was that Commodore Bescond had been let down by a lack of support from his consorts, the British newspapers did not stint in their acclamation of the Glatton’s conduct, describing the engagement as ‘one of the most brilliant actions that ever distinguished the Naval history of this country’. Leading the praise, the Stamford Mercury eulogised that ‘The STRANGE-WAYS of the famous Miss GLATTON, who on a recent occasion, so boldly returned the favours of the FRENCH COMMODORE, have given the Gallic Gallant a complete surfeit of an English TROLLOP.’ For his preservation of the Baltic convoy, Trollope was rewarded by the merchants of London and the Russia Company, whilst the Yarmouth merchants presented him with some plate, and the corporations of Yarmouth and Huntingdon bestowed on him the freedom of their boroughs. The Admiralty was less laudatory, for their lordships refused to promote the Glatton’s first lieutenant, Robert Williams, as no enemy ships had been captured.

The Glatton went on to fight at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 under the command of Captain William Bligh, and she sailed for New South Wales in 1802 under the stewardship of Captain Nathaniel Portlock. She returned home a year later to remain in active service until 1809, prior to eventually being sunk as a breakwater at Harwich in 1830. Captain Trollope meanwhile earned further glory commanding the Russell 74 at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, following which he was knighted by the King. Thereafter, his career and health deteriorated dramatically after a falling out with the influential Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent, and the last thirty years of his life were largely a struggle against gout. He became a widower in 1816, madness set in during the 1830’s, and he committed suicide at Bath in 1839, aged 83.