Phoenix v Argo – 12 May 1796

by | Oct 19, 2023 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


At dawn on 12 May, Admiral Adam Duncan’s North Sea fleet consisting of nine sail of the line, a 50-gun vessel, and various other men-of-war, was cruising about twenty miles to the south of the Texel when the frigate Pegasus 28, Captain Ross Donnelly, and sloop Sylph 18, Captain John Chambers White, which vessels had previously been ordered to cruise off the Naze of Norway, appeared in sight flying the private signal indicating that they wished to speak the commander-in-chief.

Taking a boat to the flagship, Captain Donnelly informed Duncan that the Dutch frigate Argo 36, together with three brigs and a cutter, had departed the harbour at Flekkerøy on the southern tip of Norway four days previously, and that having had them in sight off Jutland during most of the day of 9 May, he had lost them once the sun had gone down. Accepting that this small Dutch force was probably homeward-bound, Duncan ordered the Phoenix 36, Captain Lawrence William Halsted, and the Leopard 50, Captain William Swaffield, to join the Pegasus and Argo to the north of the Texel in order to intercept the enemy, and he instructed the remainder of his fleet to fan out.

Barely had the four detached vessels made sail, than at 5 a.m. on 12 May the small Dutch squadron appeared in the south-east quarter. At this time there was a strong wind from the west-north-west and the Argo and her consorts were ploughing along on the starboard tack in heavy weather. Immediately realising their perilous situation, the three brigs bore up to be pursued by the Pegasus and the Sylph, whilst the Argo took flight from the chasing Phoenix, and to a lesser extent the slower-sailing Leopard.

The Phoenix, seen in action with the French frigate Didon in 1805.

The Phoenix had recently returned from a successful mission to Norway where she had played a leading role in the recapture of four merchant ships and the two enemy cutters which had previously taken them. Launched in 1783, she had been commissioned four year later and had been in almost constant service ever since, including a stint in the East Indies under Captain Sir Richard Strachan, where she had forced the French frigate Résolue 32 to strike her colours during a peace-time engagement. She carried twenty-six 18-pounder cannons in addition to ten 9-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and she reportedly also sported eight 32-pound carronades, giving her a nominal broadside weight of metal of four hundred and seven pounds. Her crew numbered two hundred and seventy-one men and boys, and her Gosport-born 31-year-old commander, Captain Halsted, was one of four brothers who had joined the Navy, and was a post-captain of four years seniority who had enjoyed the patronage of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis.

Her opponent, the Argo, had been launched in 1790 and carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her main-deck, six-6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and four 24-pound carronades, giving her a broadside weight of metal of just two hundred and twenty-two pounds, this being a little over half that of her immediate pursuer. Her crew numbered two hundred and thirty-seven men. She had been serving in Norwegian waters for some time, and nine months previously had escaped into Eigerøy Fjord after a running fight with a British frigate squadron led by Captain James Alms of the Reunion 36, although her consort, the Alliance 36, had not been so fortunate and had struck her colours to the Stag 32, Captain Joseph Sydney Yorke.

During the early stages of the chase the Argo appeared unsure as to how to shake off her superior pursuer, both attempting to keep the wind and go large before eventually settling for the wind a-beam. Even so, by 8.15 the Phoenix was able to range up on her weather quarter, and Captain Halsted fired a warning shot when the Dutch frigate raised her colours. With the Phoenix manoeuvring in close alongside to windward, a twenty-minute engagement ensued which saw the lighter-armed Argo suffer enough damage aloft to persuade her captain that the many other British ships in the vicinity would make any escape impossible. Having satisfied himself that his frigate had fought honourably, he ordered that the Argo’s colours be struck.

Casualties aboard the Phoenix during the short engagement numbered one man killed and three wounded, whilst damage to the British frigate was superficial. The Argo’s casualties numbered six men killed and twenty-eight wounded. The cutter, which proved to be the British packet Duke of York, and which had been captured the day before by the Argo, was also secured.

Leaving the Powerful 74, Captain William O’Brien Drury, to assist the Phoenix in her management of the prize, Duncan’s fleet pursued the other Dutch vessels in the thick haze, and by the end of the day the Leander and Pegasus had driven the brigs Echo 18 and De Gier 14 ashore some thirty miles to the east of the Texel, whilst the Mercury 16 had struck her colours to the Sylph.

The Argo was bought into the British Navy and renamed the Janus 32; however, she only saw the briefest of service, for after going out to Jamaica in 1796 under Captain James Bissett and returning a year later, she ended her career as a receiving ship at Deptford and was sold off in 1811. The Phoenix remained in service beyond the end of the Napoleonic War until she was wrecked off Izmir, Turkey, in February 1816 whilst under the command of Captain Charles John Austen, the brother of the novelist, Jane Austen. Nevertheless, whilst still under the command of Captain Halsted, she had added the French frigate Carrère 44 to her conquests when capturing her off Elba in 1801, had followed this up with the defeat of the Succès 32 a month later, and with Captain Thomas Baker at the helm she had taken the superior French frigate Didon 44 in August 1805, thereby establishing a reputation as one of the most successful British cruisers of the French wars.