Battle of Minorca

20th May 1756
Part of : Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763)
Previous action : Action of 1756-05-17 17th May 1756
Next action : Dispatch vs Unknown Privateer 7th October 1756

 

Great Britain

 
British Fleet, John Byng
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Defiance 60Thomas Andrews14 killed, 15 Wounded CO Killed
Portland 50Patrick Baird6 killed, 20 wounded
Lancaster 66George Edgcumbe1 killed, 14 wounded
Buckingham -> 1777 Grampus 68Michael EverittSquadron Flagship 3 killed, 7 wounded
Captain -> 1777 Buffalo 64Charles Catford6 killed, 30 wounded
Intrepid 64James Young9 killed, 36 wounded
Revenge 64Frederick Cornwall
Princess Louisa 60Thomas Noel3 killed, 13 wounded CO Killed
Trident 64Philip Durell
Ramillies 90Arthur GardinerFleet Flagship no casualties
Culloden 74Henry Ward
Kingston 60William Parry
 
British Frigates
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
Fortune 14Jervis Maplesden
Deptford 50John Amherst
Chesterfield 44William Lloyd
Dolphin 24Benjamin Marlow
Experiment 24James Gilchrist
Phoenix 24Augustus John Hervey
 

Royaume de France

 
French Fleet, Chevalier Roland-Michel Barrin (3rd Marquis de La Galissonière)
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
L'Orphee 64Pierre-Antoine de Raymondis d'Éoux10 killed, 0 wounded?
Hippopotame -> 1777 Fier Rodrigue 50Henri de Rochemore2 killed, 10 wounded
Le Redoutable 74Pierre-André de Glandevès du CastelletSquadron Flagship 3 wounded
Sage 64 Durevest8 wounded
Le Guerrier 74René Villars de la Brosse-Raquin13 wounded
Fier 50 d'Herville4 wounded
Le Foudroyant 80 Fleet Flagship 2 killed, 10 wounded
Le Téméraire 74 Beaumont-Lemaître15 wounded
Le Content 64Joseph de Sabran5 killed, 19 wounded
Lion 64Paul-Hippolyte de Beauvilliers2 killed, 7 wounded
Couronne 74 Squadron Flagship 3 wounded
Triton 64 5 killed, 14 wounded
 
French Frigates
Ship NameGunsCommanderNotes
La Junon 44 
La Rose 30 
Gracieuse 26 
La Topaze 26 
Nymphe 24 Louis Guillouet (Comte d'Orvilliers)
 

Notes on Action


DescriptionTRN3

The wind was for the most part easterly until 9 P.M. on the 18th, when a brisk northerly breeze sprang up; and the squadron, having sailed large all night, sighted Minorca at daybreak next morning. Byng at once sent ahead the Phoenix, Chesterfield and Dolphin to reconnoitre the mouth of Mahon Harbour, to pick up intelligence, and to endeavour to send ashore a letter to General Blakeney. Captain the Hon. Augustus John Hervey, the senior officer of the advanced squadron, drew in with the shore and endeavoured to communicate with the castle of St. Philip; but, before be could effect anything, the enemy's fleet appeared in the S.E., and the detachment had to be recalled.

Vice-Admiral Byng then stood towards the foe and made the signal for a general chase. Both squadrons made sail towards one another; and at 2 P.M. the British Commander-in-Chief made the signal for a line of battle ahead. But, the wind dropping, this order could not be properly carried out. In the meantime he took the precaution of reinforcing such of the ships as were most weakly manned, by means of drafts from the frigates; and he directed that the Phoenix, which had been reported as unfit for general service, should be made ready to act as a fireship in case of necessity. At about six o'clock in the evening the enemy advanced in order, with twelve ships of the line and five frigates; the van being commanded by M. Glandevez, the centre by M. de La Galissonniere, and the rear by M. de La Clue. An hour later the French tacked, and went away a distance of about six miles, with a view to gaining the weather-gage; and Byng, to preserve that advantage, tacked likewise On the following morning two tartans, which had been sent out by M. de Richelieu with soldiers to reinforce M. de La Galissonniere, were chased by the British ships, one of them being taken by the Defiance, and the other escaping. That morning at daybreak, the weather was hazy, and the enemy was not at once seen; but, a little later, he came in sight in the S.E.

Captain Mahan's account of the action which followed may be here quoted, as it admirably summarises "The two fleets," he writes, " having sighted each other on the morning of May 20th, were found after a series of manoeuvres both on the port tack, with an easterly wind, heading southerly, the French to leeward, between the English and the harbour. Byng ran down in line ahead off the wind, the French remaining by it, so that when the former made the signal to engage, the fleets were not parallel, but formed an angle of from 30 to 40 degrees. The attack which Byng by his own account meant to make, each ship against its opposite in the enemy's line, difficult to carry out under any circumstances, was here further impeded by the distance between the two rears being much greater than that between the vans; so that his whole line could not come into action at the same moment. When the signal was made, the van ships kept away in obedience to it, and ran down for the French so nearly head on as to sacrifice their artillery fire in great measure. They received three raking broadsides and were seriously dismantled aloft. The sixth English ship'' (Intrepid) "counting from the van, had her foretopmast shot away, flew up
into the wind, and came abacK, stopping and doubling up the rear of the line. Then undoubtedly was the time for Byng, having committed himself to the fight, to have set the example and borne down, just as Farragut did at Mobile when his line was confused by the stopping of tlic next ahead; but according to the testimony of the flag-captain, Mathews's sentence deterred him. 'You see, Captain Gardiner, that the signal for the line is out, and that I am ahead of the ships Louisa and Trident (which in the order should have been ahead of him). ' You would not have me, as admiral of the fleet, run down as if I were going to engage a single ship. It was Mr. Mathews's misfortune to be prejudiced by not carrying down his force together, which I shall endeavour to avoid.' The affair thus became indecisive; the English van was separated from the rear and got the brunt of the tight. One French authority blames Galissonniere for not tacking to windward of the enemy's van and crushing it. Another says he ordered the movement, but that it could not be made from the damage to the rigging; but this seems improbable, as the only injury the French squadron underwent aloft was the loss of one topsail-yard, whereas the English suffered very badly. The true reason is probably that given and approved by one of the French authorities on naval warfare. Galissonniere considered the support of the land attack on Port Mahon paramount to any destruction of the English fleet, though he thereby exposed his own. The French navy has always preferred the glory of assuring or preserving a conquest to that, more brilliant perhaps, but actually less real, of taking some ships; and therein it has approached more nearly the true end that has been proposed in war. The justice of this conclusion depends upon the view that is taken of the true end of naval war."

The losses (see following page ') in killed and wounded were nearly equal; but the French lost no officers of rank, whereas in Byng's fleet Captain Andrews, of the Defiance, was killed, and Captain Noel, of the Princess Louisa, was mortally wounded. The British ships also suffered much more than the French in their masts, yards and rigging; so much so, in fact, that Byng deemed it right, before venturing to do anything further, to call a council of war on board the Ramillies, and to summon to it not only the naval officers, but also several of the land officers who were on board the ships. The questions debated in this council, and the conclusions arrived at, were as follows :


  1. Whether an attack on the French fleet have any prospect of relieving Mahon ? Resolved : It did not.

  2. Whether, if there were no French fleet cruising at Minorca, the British fleet could raise the siege? Resolved: It could not.

  3. Whether Gibraltar would not be in danger, should any accident befall Byng's fleet? Resolved : It would be in danger.

  4. Whether an attack by the British fleet in its present state upon that of the French would nut endanger Gibraltar, and expose the trade in the Mediterranean to great hazards? Resolved: It would.

  5. Whether it is not rather for His Majesty's service that the fleet should proceed immediately to Gibraltar? Resolved: It should proceed to Gibraltar.

As a result, the squadron sailed for Gibraltar, and, on the way, occupied itself in repairing such damages as could be repaired at sea. At the Rock the Admiral found reinforcements, which had been sent out to him under Commodore Thomas Broderick, the Ministry, after Byng's departure from England, having apparently realised for the first time the full extent of the danger in the Mediterranean.

It was unfortunate for Byng that the first detailed news of what had happened off Minorca reached the Government through French channels. M. de La Galissonniere's dispatch cannot now be found in the Archives de la Marine in Paris, and possibly it no longer exists; but a copy of it, or a translation, reached the Secretary of the Admiralty some time before Byng's own dispatch arrived in England; and upon the former the Government took action, recalling Byng and West, and sending out Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hawke and Rear-Admiral Charles Saunders to supersede them. The important part of this dispatch of La Galissonniere's is as follows :

"At half-past two in the afternoon the two squadrons were in line of battle and began the engagement. The English consisted of eighteen sail, of which thirteen were of the line, and ours, of twelve sail of the line and four frigates. The action lasted almost three hours and a half, but was not general during the whole of the time. The English ships that had suffered most from our broadsides got away to the windward, out of gunshot. They continually preserved this advantage that they might keep clear of us as they pleased. After having made their greatest efforts against our rear division, which they found so close and from which they received so hot a fire that they could not break in upon it, they made up their minds to sheer off, and did not appear again during the whole of the next day, the 21st. Speaking generally, none of their ships long withstood the fire of ours. Our vessels suffered but little. They were repaired in the night, and on the following morning were fit for action." ..." Our total killed was thirty-eight, and wounded one hundred and fifteen."



Sources

IDDescriptionAuthorType
TRN3 The Royal Navy : a history from the earliest times to the present Vol IIIWilliam Laid ClowesDigital Book
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