The Destruction of the Andromaque – 24 August 1796

by | May 19, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


Having sailed from Falmouth on 9 August, the crack frigate squadron under the command of Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren with his broad pennant aboard the Pomone 40, and otherwise consisting of the Anson 44, Captain Phillip Durham, Artois 38, Captain Sir Edmund Nagle, Galatea 32, Captain Richard Keats, and the sloop Sylph 18, Captain John Chambers White, was cruising off the Gironde Estuary at 10 a.m. thirteen days later, when a sail was seen in the south south-west, beating up against a north north-westerly wind with the apparent intention of entering the Garonne river.

The unknown vessel would prove to be the French frigate Andromaque 36, Captain Dominique Morel, which was seeking to return to port after sustaining storm damage whilst on a successful cruise with three consorts in the Bay of Biscay. Launched at Brest on Christmas Eve 1777, the Andromaque had been present at the Battle of Ushant in July 1778, had captured the British sixth rate Unicorn 20, Captain Thomas Lenox Frederick, on 4 September 1780, and had been refloated after being accidentally sunk during 1782. Her armament consisted of twenty-six 12-pound cannons on her upper gun deck and six French 6-pound cannons and four French 36-pound carronades on her quarterdeck and forecastle, whilst her nominal complement was two hundred and ninety men.

Sir Richard Keats

Upon sighting the stranger, Commodore Warren ordered the advanced and inshore Galatea to investigate, and soon a signal indicating the unknown vessel to be an enemy frigate was returned. Racing ahead, Captain Keats entered a channel between the Chevrier Bank and a lighthouse and cut the Andromaque off from the river. At the same time, by hoisting French signals he confused his opponent in to anchoring in the Grave Channel. Swiftly comprehending the deceit, Captain Morel cut his cable within minutes and wore away to the south, keeping within cannon shot of the shore. By displaying his renowned exemplary seamanship, Keats managed to extricate the Galatea from his channel in just twenty-four feet of water and set off in pursuit. The Pomone and Anson also joined the chase into the wind, whilst the Artois and Sylph were temporarily detached to investigate two strange sail which had been discovered in the south-west.

By 8 p.m., the Galatea was within two miles of the Andromaque as they hurried south, but the likelihood of bringing her to action was negated an hour later when both Keats’ frigate and Warren’s Pomone were almost within range, for at that time the darkening skies unleashed a thunderstorm which forced both to shorten sail. Taking advantage of the thick squalls, the French frigate disappeared into the murk, thereby obliging Warren to split his force under the suspicion that the enemy might have hauled her wind. Accordingly, his own vessel and the Anson took off to the north, whilst the Galatea continued south on the Frenchman’s previous course along the coast.

By 11 p.m. the storm had passed on, and in the clearing night sky the Galatea discovered the Andromaque a mile offshore in the south south-west. Recommencing the chase, by 4 a.m. on the 23rd Keats had regained his position of the previous evening, some two miles astern of the enemy, and in refusing to be dissuaded by the protests of his French pilot, he followed the Andromaque in towards the Arcachon shoals. Daylight found the Sylph and Artois hull down in the north-west after rejoining the chase once the strange sails had proved to be neutral Americans, and thus faced with the certainty of capture, Captain Morel jettisoned his cannons and headed towards the shoreline. As soon as the Andromaque touched ground the crew cut away her masts, and being further lightened, she ran ashore at 5.30 a.m. near Biscarosse, some fifteen miles south of Arcachon.

Upon coming up with the grounded Andromaque, Keats noted that her colours were no longer flying, and so after firing a cursory three shots, he despatched the boats under his first lieutenant, Henry Lloyd, to approach the stranded vessel. At 7 a.m. the Artois and Sylph arrived on the scene, and a senior lieutenant, Benjamin Carter of the former, assumed command of the boats. Meanwhile, desperate to avoid capture and a bitter imprisonment, the French seamen had been ordered to abandon ship and get ashore, but in so doing at least twenty of them drowned in the waves. Captain Morel remained aboard with two officers and a couple of seamen who had refused to desert their commander, and along with some Portuguese prisoners they were brought off and taken aboard the Sylph.

Shortly after 8 a.m., the boats of the assembled ships began towing the Sylph into the shallow waters, and with a spring on her cable she fired shot into the Andromaque’s hull until noon, when she returned the boats to their respective ships. At this time, the Artois and Galatea were some two miles offshore, whilst the Pomone and Anson were some distance beyond, having tacked from the north at daylight. With the tide on the ebb, the Sylph stood out, but she returned at 3 p.m., and after firing on the French sailors in the dunes to prevent their interference in their operation, she moved to within seven hundred yards of the Andromaque at 4 p.m. and sent her boats in to burn her. Within half an hour the boats were back, leaving the remains of the French frigate in flames behind them, and by 5 p.m. the Andromaque was totally and irrecoverably ablaze.

Despite one eminent historian declaring that the honour of appraising the Admiralty of the French frigate’s destruction should have fallen to Captain Keats, it was the commodore who assumed that privilege, although Warren’s letter to the Admiralty did not leave Falmouth until 10 September. Appended to his dispatch was a list of another eight vessels which his squadron had burnt or captured in the previous four weeks, together with details of the other frigates in the Andromaque’s division which were believed to be still cruising at sea, these being the Néréide 36, Décade 36, and Bayonnaise 28. For his part, once Captain Morel was exchanged and brought before a court of inquiry, he was acquitted of blame for the Andromaque’s loss.