Trafalgar: Gilding the Gingerbread

Sir Richard Strachan’s Action, November 3rd, 1805

If anything could have marred Britain’s joy at the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar it was the escape of four French ships of the line. Part of the van of the Combined Fleets of France and Spain, they were well ahead of the point where HMS Victory broke the enemy line. Spotted late in the afternoon by the crew of the schooner Pickle, and other British vessels, as they worked their way round the battle area, these four ships were engaged briefly by the last ships in Nelson’s line. However, with their rigging in shreds, and spars shot away, there was little the British ships could do to stop them withdrawing relatively unscathed. In his post-Trafalgar dispatches, Lord Collingwood reported these ships as being – Formidable (80) Rear-Admiral Doumanoir; Duguay Trouin (74) Monsieur Troufflet; Scipion (74) Monsieur Berenger; and the Mont Blanc (74) Monsieur le Villegries [though their commander’s names vary in different reports]. They were, however, not to escape scot-free.

Almost before most people in Britain had heard the details of the Battle of Trafalgar, these would-be escapees had been captured and carried into Plymouth as prizes of war. Formal dispatches about the battle off Cape Trafalgar, and the death of Admiral Lord Nelson, reached Falmouth per HM Schooner Pickle on November 4th; were delivered to the Admiralty in London early a.m. on the 6th; and became general public knowledge thereafter. On Saturday November 9th the Royal Cornwall Gazette carried the following brief paragraph, which was assumed by many observers and readers to relate to enemy prizes of war being brought home from Trafalgar –

Several ships were seen last evening from the heights near Falmouth, passing to the eastward. As the wind lately has been fair from that quarter, it is conjectured that they are a part of Lord Nelson’s fleet and prizes. Amongst them were a frigate with her fore-topmast disab’ed; and a line-of-battle ship having another in tow, totally dismasted.’

But, these were not ships returning from the Battle of Trafalgar with their prizes. The disabled frigate proved to be the Revolutionaire, which, along with the other unidentified vessels, was part of Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron – towing home their prizes from a separate engagement with the French. However, arriving as they did in an English port well before any of the Trafalgar ships came home, they took the initial limelight and a great deal of reflected glory. Only the day before, Lloyd’s List, the British maritime newspaper [then published twice weekly on Tuesdays and Fridays], had reported key elements of the Battle of Trafalgar. On the following Tuesday it reported the engagement with, and capture of, these would-be escapees from that fight.

The Formidable, of 80 Guns, Dugay Trouin, Mont Blanc, Scipion, of 74 Guns each, which had separated from the remains of the Combined Fleet after the Action off Cape Trafalgar, were taken the 4th Inst. off Rochefort, by the Squadron under command of Sir Richard Strachan, consisting of the Cæsar, Hero, Courageux, and Namur Men of War, Revolutionaire, Phoenix, Santa Margaritta, and Æoleus Frigates, after an Action of 3 hours and a half. The Enemy had between 5 and 600 killed and wounded; our loss about 30 killed and 100 wounded. – The Cæsar, Courageux, Hero, and Revolutionaire arrived at Plymouth the 10th with the Prizes, which are all dismasted.

Unfortunately no surviving edition of the Royal Cornwall Gazette for Saturday the 16th November has yet been found. This undoubtedly carried much more news about the Battle of Trafalgar itself and the death of Nelson, along with reports of local celebrations. It would also have reported the triumphant arrival of Sir Richard’s ships at Plymouth. The edition for the following week [23rd] has however survived, and in addition to further follow-up reports on Trafalgar and those local celebrations for which there was no space in the former [now missing], a whole column was given up to reporting Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron’s spirited engagement – apparently as seen through the eyes of one on board the frigate Santa Margaritta.

A major part of the British plan to frustrate Napoleon’s threatened invasion of England was the blockade of the French naval ports, An effective blockade preventing delivery of essential supplies to the invasion ports by sea, and denying the presence of any significant French naval force to escort that invasion force safely across the Channel. In the late summer of 1805, a significant naval force was maintaining the blockade of Brest, when news came in of the Rochefort squadron having attacked a homeward bound convoy. Dubbed the ‘invisible squadron’ by the City of London, [1] this squadron had been wreaking havoc amongst British shipping for most of the summer of 1805. This time they had engaged a homeward bound fleet of south sea whalers and eastern traders, sailing under convoy of HMS Calcutta, of 54 guns, Captain Daniel Woodriff, from St. Helena. The merchant ships had scattered when attacked and made their way home safely – but the Calcutta had been captured in a brave defensive engagement which enabled her charges to escape unharmed.

On learning of her capture, Captain Sir Richard Strachan (carrying his Commodore’s flag in the Cæsar, of 80 guns), was detached from the blockading fleet off Brest with a small squadron of British ships to locate, engage and destroy the Rochefort squadron, which was reported to have been making for Ferrol – and possibly recover the Calcutta.

Just as the British fleet off Cadiz was forced to ride out a succession of gales following the Battle of Trafalgar, so too were the ships of Sir Richard’s squadron some hundreds of miles to the north – though they had no inkling that the great battle had been fought. Forced to gain sea-room to ride out these gales, Sir Richard’s official dispatch on his engagement with the French opens with ‘Being off Ferrol,’ [about the southerly limit of their patrol area] ‘working to the westward. With the wind westerly, on the evening of the 2d we observed a frigate in the N.W. making signals ….’  This dispatch being written-up on board Cæsar on the evening of the engagement, when Sir Richard then gave their position as lying ‘… west of Rochefort 264 miles….’ [2] The action had taken place well out in the Bay of Biscay.

As the account in the Royal Cornwall Gazette, later disclosed, [3] at the time the enemy were first discovered they were about ‘50 leagues to the N.W. of Cape Ortegal (the other ships of the squadron being at that time extended over a very large space, for the greater probability of discovering the Rochefort squadron)’. Sir Richard’s ships were then well strung out in trying to detect them, and the frigate sighted from the Cæsar on the evening of the second proved to be the Phoenix, of 36 guns, under Captain Baker. Coming up with her at about 11 p.m. the commodore was informed that the Phoenix had been chased by vessels from the elusive Rochefort squadron, which was then in sight. Captain Baker was immediately sent on to advise the ships-of-the-line astern of Sir Richard, that he intended to attack. ‘The enemy being now in sight of the Commodore to the E.N.E. six sail in a close line, gave chace; but, part of the British squadron being far astern, soon slackened sail for them to come up – Lost sight of the enemy on the moon setting.’ [4]

The six enemy ships lost sight of were never positively identified, but were probably vessels of the Rochefort squadron. At daybreak on the morning of the 3rd the frigate Santa Margaritta, also of 36 guns, was sent ahead to the E.N.E. to scout out the enemy. About nine a.m. she sighted four enemy sail ahead – assumed to be those she was looking for, but which subsequently proved to be a different squadron.

It was possibly one of these two French squadrons that Captain Sykes of HM Sloop Nautilus had been forced to avoid on November 2nd, delaying him several hours in his private race against Lt. Lapenotiere on board HM Schooner Pickle to be the first home to England with the Trafalgar news. [see Trafalgar : The Race for Glory]

Receiving the signal ‘Enemy in Sight’, the British squadron took-off in chase of the Santa Margaritta, she then being well ahead and the only British vessel within sight of the enemy. The chase to the E.N.E. was a prolonged one, continuing throughout that day, and into the following night. During that night the Phoenix again closed with the commodore, having delivered his orders to the other ships of the squadron. Marginally faster than the ships of the line, the Phoenix was now ordered to range ahead and support the Santa Margaritta in her pursuit of the enemy ships.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette, quoting from the letter from Plymouth of November 20th, picks up the story on the following morning. –

‘4th at daybreak, Margaritta very far a-head. 
Half past 6 A.M. Margaritta skirmishing with the enemy’s rear. 
Half past 7, ‘Margaritta repeatedly firing broadsides from the Southward on the starboard quarters of their two rear ships, for three hours and three quarters by the ships books, before any other British ship could come up to her support’. Wind E.N.E. The, enemy at this time extending nearly E. and W. continued an E.N.E. course on four parallel lines, each ship having on its larboard quarter the starboard bow of that following next from the westward, Le Duguay Trouin leading, and the Scipion closing the rear; the latter on the Margaritta’s larboard bow.’ [5]

The Santa Margaritta clearly held the weather gage of the last French ship, but the observation that the wind direction and the course of the French ships and their pursuers were E.N.E., cannot be correct as no ships of that period could sail within five or six points of the wind – say 60 or 70 degrees. That evening, when Sir Richard was writing his official report on board the Cæsar, he gave the wind as being in the south-east. This was a much more likely quarter, and while the wind could have shifted about during the day, a south-easterly wind fits well with the manoeuvres of the two opposing squadrons.

‘About 11 A.M. the Phoenix came up in Le Scipion’s wake, brought her broadside to bear on the enemy’s larboard quarter, and commenced firing.

Half past 11, the Commodore, to the Southward of the Margaritta, followed by the Hero and the Courageux, endeavouring to close with the enemy. The Æolus frigate also [to] the Southward. Enemy formed line in the Duguay Trouin’s wake. Squadrons engaged partially. Duguay Trouin tacked, followed by the other French ships in succession, and stood to the S.W. under easy sail, each ship bringing her lee bow toward the starboard quarter of that next her a-head. Phoenix unable to gain the wind of the enemy, who had just tacked, past to the leeward, raking their van ship, and received her fire. The Santa Margaritta soon followed, raked the enemy’s van ship, and, ‘immediately bringing her own head nearer the wind, past along her side on the opposite tack, firing and receiving broadsides, but never leaving herself in a situation to be raked. Past under the bow of each of the others and alongside, raking each in turn, and tacking (after passing the enemy’s side) with her own stern against the quarter of the last ship, and her bow under the next; by that means never exposing herself to be raked by the enemy, but receiving all their fire on her side. All this within pistol shot!’ Margaritta continued on larboard tack, for the purpose of stopping some dangerous shot holes between wind and water, and of repairing her rigging, it being very much cut. Meanwhile the Cæsar, Hero and Courageux had tacked, and, having first had an opportunity of seeing with the greatest admiration, the gallantry and masterly manoeuvres of the Santa Margaritta, in passing the enemy’s line, each respectively closed with an opponent, and renewed the fight.

Half past 12 Namur came up, tacked and opened her fire on the Duguay Trouin. Revolutionaire to leeward of the enemy. 1 P.M. [Revolutionaire] got to the windward, under a very heavy fire, and joined our squadron.

Half after 2 P.M. three of the enemy’s ships being nearly disabled, the fourth endeavoured, under a press of sail to escape. The Revolutionaire and the Phoenix gave chace, firing on her quarters.

Three of the enemy had struck before 3 P.M. About 2 P.M. the Duguay Trouin struck, Captain Gardner of the Hero, seeing with what gallantry the Santa Margaritta harassed the enemy’s rear during the chace, ordered all hands on deck to animate them by the example. Le Scipion acknowledges to have lost 8 men killed and 13 wounded by the fire of this ship alone, before the Phoenix had come up; and Le Formidable 2 or 3 killed and several wounded on one deck only. I was told by an officer of the Santa Margaritta that after receiving the broadsides of the four enemy’s ships, they looked round them expecting to see their deck covered with killed and wounded, and they found with joy and astonishment, that they had not lost a man! The only man killed was by a stern gun of the Formidable, during the chace, whilst the ship lay nearly in her wake, and on the quarter of Le Scipion. The sailors of our squadron have named the Santa Margaritta the ‘Little Caesar,’ and Sir Richard Strachan was much gratified on hearing it. I well know that he never speaks of her conduct but with the highest praise. It is much to be regretted that the shortness of his official letter, precluded his entering into particulars; or no doubt he would have written as favourably of her as he speaks.’ [6]

While the above report makes much of the Santa Margaritta’s role, her long engagement was essentially restricted to the chase, when her duty was to harass and delay the enemy while the ships of the line came up. This she did admirably, and was later ably assisted by the Phoenix, but the ‘battle’ proper, the decisive action, was fought between the opposing ships-of the line. On Monday November 4th, 1805, at about the same time as Lieutenant Lapenotiere was setting out on his epic post-chaise dash from Falmouth to the Admiralty in London with the Trafalgar dispatches, Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron opened their engagement with the four Trafalgar retirees.

The action proper was fought in two stages. During the first stage, prior to the French line tacking, the opposing ships were sailing roughly E.N.E., on the starboard tack, with the vessels ranged against each other as follows –

Cæsar, 80 Sir Richard Strachan – Douguay Trouin, 74 Captain Troufflet
Hero, 74, Hon. Captain Gardner – Le Formidable, 80 Rear-Admiral Dumanoir
Courageux, 74  Captain Lee – Le Mont Blanc, 74 Captain le Villegries
With the British frigates harassing – Le Scipion, 74 Captain Barouger

Throughout this stage of the engagement the British frigates continuously harassed the enemy, snapping at their heels as and when they could without hindering their own ships. Just after noon, the Douguay Trouin tacked to the southward, followed by the other French ships tacking in succession. The British line now tacked together, reversing their order in the line, but gaining a distinct advantage in the process. And, shortly after executing this manoeuvre the Namur caught up and joined the British line. Now four against four, with the opposing ships all on the larboard tack with the British squadron still holding the weather gage. Heading approximately S.W., they now lined up thus. –

Hero, 74, Hon. Captain Gardner – Douguay Trouin, 74 Captain Troufflet
Namur, 74 Captain Halstead –  Le Formidable, 80 Rear-Admiral Dumanoir
Cæsar, 80 Sir Richard Strachan – Le Mont Blanc, 74 Captain le Villegries
Courageux, 74  Captain Lee – Le Scipion, 74 Captain Barouger

This time the British frigates ranged to leeward of the French ships, engaging their lee side and effectively doubling the line. By shortly after three o’clock the battle was virtually over. The French ships were dismasted and unmanageable, and were unable to continue the fight. Surrendering with honour, to Sir Richard’s surprise he now learnt that he had not been engaged with the Rochefort squadron after all, but with four ships from the Combined Fleets of France and Spain from Cadiz. The British ships now set about making their ships fully seaworthy again, while spare hands swarmed over the four prizes. Their crews secured below decks, the British seamen effected such emergency repairs as they could for their passage back to England, and six days later, with their prizes all in tow Sir Richard Strachan’s squadron entered Plymouth in triumph.

This side action was later deemed to be an extension of the Battle of Trafalgar, in so far as the Trafalgar rewards were concerned. Sir Richard himself was duly promoted to Rear-Admiral of the Blue, and his four prizes were all taken into the British fleet, rendering substantial prize money for Sir Richard, the officers and men of his squadron. And [though not so rare an occurrence as might be thought] the crews of the ships of the squadron were allowed ‘shore leave,’ as noted by the PLYMOUTH JOURNAL. –

On account of the glorious victory off Cape Ortegal, the 4th inst. by Rear-Admiral Sir R. Strachan’s squadron, he and the several Captains of the men of war composing his squadron, gave leave for a proportionate number of the crew of each ship to go on shore for two days recreation; of course all the coaches, &c. were put into requisition in Plymouth and Dock, “and drive me out a guinea’s worth of coaching” all the go. Most of those eccentric fellows wore love crepe ribbon above their left elbow, in respect and affection for their beloved hero, the late Lord Nelson. When the portion of seamen now ashore return on board, a like leave will be given to the remained of the ships companies in turn.’ [7]

There were great celebrations throughout Devon and Cornwall, and as indicated above, the four enemy prizes were all taken into the British fleet where they quickly became effective fighting units of the Royal Navy. Of the four the Duguay Trouin [the tenth of that name] was destined to become the most famous – but under the name of HMS Implacable. As the Implacable she enjoyed a distinguished career under British command, surviving into venerable old age, finally as a training ship. Surviving the Second World War, she was found to be beyond economic repair – in a time when financing ship restoration projects was unimaginable]. Decommissioned, she was towed out into the Channel and scuttled by the Royal Navy on December 2nd 1949 some ten miles southeast of the Owers light-vessel, flying both the white ensign and French tricolour. [8]

The Battle of Trafalgar was undoubtedly considered a great British victory by the nation, but for the people of the west country Sir Richard Strachan’s victory of November 4th 1805 was every bit as impressive, and effectively put the gilding on the gingerbread!