The cutting out of the French corvette Utile – 9 June 1796

by | Dec 19, 2023 | 1796 | 0 comments


The British Mediterranean fleet under the command of Admiral Sir John Jervis was cruising off the Hyères Roads at noon on 9 June, when a French cruiser was spotted working its way up amongst the islands. Upon directing Captain James Macnamara of the Southampton 32 to come aboard the flagship Victory 100, Jervis gestured towards ‘this eyesore’ and hinted that the frigate captain might want to do something about removing it. No written orders were given, as Jervis clearly believed that success would attend the enterprise. As a sign of a complete confidence in his officers, and of his utter contempt for any enemy, it could not have been surpassed.

The Southampton was an old frigate, having been launched almost forty years previously, and she had seen a great deal of action in both the Seven Years War, during which she had captured two French frigates, and the American Revolutionary War. Her original armament had been twenty-six 12-pounder cannons on her upper gun deck, together with six 6-pounder cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, giving her a broadside weight of metal of one hundred and seventy-four pounds. Her nominal compliment had been two hundred and ten men, and her 28-year-old commander, Captain Macnamara, was a fiery Irishman who had been posted captain in the previous October, although there had been some speculation that this elevation had been the result of an administrative error.

HMS Southampton

The French cruiser would prove to be the corvette Utile 24, Captain François Veza. Launched in 1784 as a storeship, she appears to have been armed with eighteen 6-pounder cannons and six swivel guns, providing a puny weight of broadside in comparison to her imminent opponent that was just short of sixty British pounds. Her crew was reported to number one hundred and thirty-six men.

Macnamara repaired aboard the Southampton at about 5.30, and disguising his frigate as a neutral vessel, he took her in under easy sail through the Grand Pass, being left unmolested by the French batteries on the northeastern end of the Île de Porquerolles. Arriving unharmed within pistol shot of the corvette at about 8.30, Macnamara summoned her captain by speaking trumpet and urged him to surrender. In response, the Frenchman let fly with his pistol and the Utile launched a broadside at the Southampton. Macnamara immediately ran alongside the Utile, backed his mizzen topsail and unleashed three broadsides before lashing the corvette’s bowsprit to his main rigging. His boarders under the command of Lieutenant Charles Lydiard then rushed aboard the enemy. They met with a spirited resistance, in the course of which Captain Veza fell, but within ten minutes the French vessel had been carried, with a number of her men escaping ashore in her launch.

By now, Fort Brégançonnet had opened a heavy fire on the British frigate, and this persisted as Macnamara lashed the corvette to the Southampton and attempted to tow her out. It soon became apparent that a hawser was running inshore from the corvette, but fortunately Lieutenant Lydiard managed to identify it in the darkness, and after a number of frantic slices he severed it with his sword. By 1.30 the following morning the Southampton had returned safely through the Grand Pass with her prize and had rejoined the fleet.

The British lost one marine killed in the action, whilst the French suffered eight men killed and seventeen wounded. The delighted Jervis promoted Lieutenant Lydiard to the command of the prize and sent home Macnamara’s dispatch with one of his own, with both being dated 10 June off Toulon.

The Utile did not remain long in the British service, for after seeing duty in the Mediterranean, she arrived at Portsmouth in August 1797 and was sold off at Southampton a year later. Her only commander, Charles Lydiard, a man of humble birth, was eventually posted captain on 1 January 1801, but he lost his life when the frigate Anson was wrecked in Cornish waters on 29 December 1807. Typically, Lydiard had remained at the wheel to ensure that his crew had been given every opportunity to reach safety, and he only died when impeded by a young boy whom he was attempting to assist.