Warren’s Squadron take the Pomone, Engageante and Babet – 23 April 1794
On 15 April a force of five frigates from Rear-Admiral John MacBride’s squadron, led by Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren, left Plymouth on Admiralty orders for its cruising ground between Cape Finisterre and Cherbourg with orders to seek out a squadron of crack French frigates which had been causing havoc amongst British merchant shipping in the Channel. This force comprised Warren’s18-pounder Flora 36, the 18-pounder Arethusa 38, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, 18-pounder Melampus 36, Captain Thomas Wells, the 12-pounder Concorde 32, Captain Sir Richard John Strachan, and the 12-pounder Nymphe 36, Captain George Murray. With them also sailed the cutter Pilote 14, Lieutenant Henry Gunter, although this vessel would play no part in the excitement to come.
A week later, on 22 April, the squadron fell in with the frigate Minerva 38, Captain John Whitby, which was in passage from the East Indies with the returning commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis, and which had espied a French force in Cancale Bay the day before. Acting upon this information Warren’s squadron sailed towards the Breton coast, and shortly after dawn on 23 April, having just come about on the starboard tack, and being some twenty-five miles to the south-west of Guernsey, they sighted four unknown sail approaching them from a south-easterly direction on the opposite tack off the Île de Batz.
Being either unaware of the British superiority or hamstrung by the weak and variable south south-westerly wind, the strangers formed line of battle ahead as soon as they spotted Warren’s force and maintained their course. The vessels would prove to be a French squadron of three frigates and a corvette under the command of Commodore F. Desgarceaux with his pennant aboard the 12-pounder frigate Engageante 36. His vessel was seconded in the line of battle by the 12-pounder Résolue 36, Captain Puillon-Villéon, and following her the 24-pounder Pomone 44, Captain Etienne Pévrieux, and the 8-pounder corvette Babet 20, Lieutenant Pierre-Joseph-Paul Belhomme. As suspected, they were part of the successful commerce-raiding Cherbourg squadron, and it was held that the Engageante alone had taken over fifty British and Dutch prizes since the opening of the war fourteen months previously. Their mission on this occasion was to intercept the Cork convoy under the protection of the Aurora 28, Captain William Essington. As somewhat of a curiosity the Résolue 36 was the very frigate that Captain Strachan had forced to surrender during a peacetime engagement in India two and a half years previously.
The two frigate forces continued to approach on opposite tacks, and as soon as they were in range the French began firing, as was their practice. Warren had already signalled his chasing ships to form in succession, the Flora being followed in order by the Arethusa, Melampus, Concorde, and some way astern the Nymphe, and once Warren’s frigate reached the enemy’s wake she tacked in order to assume the same course as the French, if somewhat astern. At this point the wind veered slightly in the British favour which allowed Warren’s squadron the opportunity to weather their enemy, and now he signalled his frigates to engage as they came up on the French line so that they could cut their enemy off from the shore and oblige them to fight a close action.
At 6.30 the Flora began engaging the rearmost Frenchman, the corvette Babet 20, before running up the French line to attack the powerful Pomone 44, which carried twenty-six 24-pounder cannon on her main deck, and also firing into the Résolue. The two rear-most French vessels were certainly not found wanting in this engagement, and with the wounded Captain Pévrieux refusing to leave his post and urging his men on the Flora’s main-topmast was shot down at about 7.30 and she fell away with so much damage aloft that it rendered her incapable of participating in any further action. Yet although the Flora had been forced out of the battle she had made her mark, and such was the damage wrought on the Pomone and Babet that they were now at the mercy of the remainder of Warren’s squadron.
By now the Arethusa had already engaged the spirited Babet, and in company with the Melampus she battered the courageous corvette into submission at about 8.30, allowing the disabled Flora to take possession. With the Engageante and Résolue crowding on sail in the hope of escaping from the superior force ranged against them the Pomone was now left to her fate, and at 9.30 she struck to the Arethusa after an equally furious resistance which had seen her lose her main and mizzenmasts and been set on fire. In return Pellew’s main-topgallant mast had been shot away, ensuring that she too could take no further part in the action.
As the dull-sailing Nymphe, to the mortification of Captain Murray and his officers, was still some distance in arrears it was now left to the Concorde and Melampus to hunt down the Résolue and the Engageante. At about 11 a.m. Strachan was able to get up and bring Commodore Desgarceaux’s frigate to action, his intention being to disable her and allow the Melampus and hopefully one of his other consorts to finish her off whilst he reeled in the Résolue. This plan was thwarted when the Résolue, which appears earlier to have ignored instructions to intervene in the action between the Flora and Pomone, bore down in support of her commodore, and assuming a raking position across the Concorde’s bows forced Strachan to temporarily stand off by shooting through his main-topmast.
Having quickly attended to what repairs he could, and noting that his consorts were still some way off and that his damaged main topmast might come tumbling down at any moment, Strachan now decided to concentrate all his efforts on defeating the Engageante. In this design he was facilitated to some degree by the behaviour of the Résolue, which after briefly standing by her compatriot to fire several shots at the Concorde took her leave in the smoke of battle. For the best part of two hours from noon the Engageante resisted Strachan’s assault, despite incurring casualties of twenty-nine men killed and wounded including Commodore Desgarceaux who had fallen to the Concorde’s second broadside. Eventually, with her main-mast sheared away close to the deck, her foremast reduced to a mere sixteen-foot stump, her hold filling with water, and her ammunition expended, she was surrendered by a lieutenant at 1.45. In the meantime, the Résolue had out-sailed the Melampus, which had suffered minor damage aloft earlier in the action, to make good her escape into Morlaix where Captain Puillon-Villéon was soon brought to account for his conduct by being dismissed.
Casualties on the British side were but few, numbering one man killed and three wounded aboard the Flora, three men killed and five wounded on the Arethusa, and five men including her master killed, and five men wounded on the Melampus. The sole death on the Concorde was that of a brave lad who had absented himself from Westminster School to enter as a common seaman, whilst she had also suffered twelve men wounded including Strachan who had been injured above the right eye by a splinter, although initial fears that he might lose his sight soon proved unfounded. On the French side, in addition to the Engageante’s suspected twenty-nine casualties, the Pomone had suffered up to a hundred men killed and wounded and the Babet up to forty.
The sloop Echo, Captain Peter Halkett, was the first to reach Plymouth with the news of the captures, and on 26 April Rear-Admiral John MacBride wrote to the Admiralty advising them that the Concorde and Nymphe had entered the Devonshire port the night before with the Engageante. Here the Concorde was taken into dock to be given new masts, her old ones having suffered so grievously in the battle. Concurrently the Flora was towed into the Portland Roads in the company of the Arethusa and Melampus with the other two prizes. On 3 May Captains Warren, Pellew and Wells were presented to the King by the first lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Chatham, and at the end of the month Warren was invested with the order of the Bath. There was also much to celebrate for the first lieutenants of the Arethusa, Flora and Concorde, who were all promoted to the rank of master and commander, whilst five seamen from the Arethusa would famously enjoy their share of the prize money by hiring a coach and horses to spend three days parading in a drunken revelry between Plymouth and the naval yard.
The captured Pomone, recognised as the finest frigate in the world, was gratefully accepted into the Navy, and so impressed with her were the Admiralty that they promptly ordered the building of the frigate Endymion along her lines. Unfortunately, the Pomone was wrecked in St Aubin’s Bay, Jersey on 8 September 1802 when under the command of Captain Hon. Edward Leveson-Gower, with the pilot receiving a three-year imprisonment for his inattention on that occasion. The Babet was also bought into the Navy but was lost without trace in a West Indian hurricane under the command of Captain Jemmett Mainwaring in November 1801, whilst the thirty year-old Engageante was so damaged following her duel with the Concorde than she could serve no other purpose than that of a hospital ship to the fleet.