Battle of Saint Kitts
|Battle of Frigate Bay|
|25th January 1782 - 26th January 1782|
|French Fleet, Comte François-Joseph Paul de Grasse|
|Ville de Paris||104||Velleon||Fleet Flagship|
|Duc de Bourgogne||80||Chevalier Médine|
|Citoyen||74||Comte Alexandre d'Ethy|
|Saint Albans||64||Charles Inglis|
|Intrepid||64||Anthony James Pye Molloy|
|Torbay||74||John Lewis Gidoin|
|Princessa||70||Charles Knatchbull||Squadron Flagship|
|Prince George||98||James Williams|
|British Center, Samuel Hood|
|Prince William||64||George Wilkinson|
|Invincible||74||Sir Charles Saxton|
|Barfleur||98||Alexander Arthur Hood||Fleet Flagship|
|Centaur||74||John Nicholson Inglefield|
|Fortunee||38||Hugh Cloberry Christian|
|British Rear, Sir Edmund Affleck|
|Russell||74||Sir Henry Edwin Stanhope|
|Canada||76||The Hon. William Cornwallis|
|Solebay||28||Charles Everitt||Grounded and was wrecked Sunk|
|Notes on Action|
|On the 14th of the month [January] an express sent by General Shirley, governor of St. Kitts, informed Hood that a great fleet approaching had been seen from the heights of Nevis on the 10th. The Rear-Admiral at once put to sea, though short of bread and flour, which could not be had, and with the material of his ships in wretched condition. "When the President joins," he wrote the Admiralty, "I shall be twenty-two strong, with which I beg you will assure their Lordships I will seek and give battle to the Count cle Grasse, be his numbers as they may." On the 16th a ship reached him with word that the French fleet had invested St. Kitts. On the 21st Hood anchored at Antigua for repairs and supplies, indispensable for keeping the sea in the operations which he contemplated, the duration of which could not be foreseen. About a thousand troops also were embarked, which, with the Marines that could be spared from the squadron, would give a landing force of 2,400 men. |
St. Kitts being less than fifty miles from Antigua, Hood doubtless now got accurate information of the enemy's dispositions, and could form a definite, well-matured plan. This seems to have been carefully imparted to all his captains, as was the practice of Nelson, who was the pupil of Hood, if of any one. "At 9.15 A.M. the Admiral made the signal for all flag-officers," says the log of the Canada; "and at 4 P.M. the Admirals and Commodore made the signals for all captains of their divisions." At 5 P.M. of the same day, January 23rd, the fleet weighed and stood over for Nevis, round the southern point of which Basse Terre must be approached; for, the channel between the two islands being impracticable for ships of the line, they virtually were one, and, their common axis lying north-west and south-east, the trade-wind is fair only when coming from the south.
Basse Terre, where de Grasse then was, is about fifteen miles from the south point of Nevis. The roadstead lies east and west, and the French fleet, then twenty-four of the line and two fifties, were anchored without attention to order, three or four deep, the eastern ships so placed that an enemy coming from the southward could reach them with the prevailing wind, against which the western ships could not beat up quickly to their support. This being so, we are told that Hood, starting shortly before sunset with a fair, and probably fresh wind, from a point only sixty miles distant, hoped to come upon the French by surprise at early daybreak, to attack the weather ships, and from them to pass along the line so far as might seem expedient. His column, thus passing in its entirety by a certain exposed fraction of the enemy, the latter would be cut up in detail by the concentration upon it. The British then, wearing to the southward, would haul their wind, tack, and again stand up to the assault, if the enemy continued to await it.
This reasonable expectation, and skilful conception, was thwarted by a collision, during the night, between a frigate, the Nymphe, 36, and the leading ship of the line, the Alfred, 74. The repairs to the latter delayed the fleet, the approach of which was discovered by daylight. De Grasse therefore put to sea. He imagined Hood's purpose was to throw succours into Brimstone Hill; and moreover the position of the enemy now was between him and the four ships of the line momentarily expected from Martinique, one of which joined him on the same day. The French were all under way by sunset, standing to the southward under easy sail, towards the British, who had rounded the south point of Nevis at 1 P.M. Towards dark, Hood went about and stood also to the southward, seemingly in retreat.
During the following night the British tacked several times, to keep their position to windward. At daylight of January 25th, the two fleets were to the westward of Nevis; the British near the island, the French abreast, but several miles to leeward. Foiled in his first spring by an unexpected accident, Hood had not relinquished his enterprise, and now proposed to seize the anchorage quitted by the French, so establishing himself there, as he had proposed to Graves to do in the Chesapeake, that he could not be dislodged. For such a defensive position St. Kitts offered special advantages. The anchorage was on a narrow ledge, dropping precipitately to very deep water; and it was possible so to place the ships that the enemy could not easily anchor near them.
At 5.30 A.M. of the 25th Hood made the signal to form line of battle on the starboard tack, at one cable interval. It is mentioned in the log of the Canada, 74, Captain the Hon. William Cornwallis, that that ship brought-to in her station, fourth from the rear, at 7 o'clock. By 10 o'clock the line was formed, and the ships hove-to in it. At 10.45 the signal was made to fill [to go ahead], the van ships to carry the same sail as the Admiral, topsails and foresails, followed, just before noon, by the order to prepare to anchor, with springs on the cables. The French, who were steering south, on the port tack, while the British were hove-to, went about as soon as the latter filled, and stood towards them in bow and quarter line.
At noon the British fleet was running along close under the high land of Nevis; so close that the Solebay, 28, Captain Charles Holmes Everitt, one of the frigates inshore of the line, grounded and was wrecked. No signals were needed, except to correct irregularities in the order, for the captains knew what they were to do. The French were approaching steadily, but inevitably dropping astern with reference to the point of the enemy's line for which they were heading. At 2 P.M. de Grasse's flagship, the Ville da I'aris, fired several shot at the British rear, which alone she could reach, while his left wing was nearing the Barfleur, Hood's flagship, and the vessels astern of her, which opened their fire at 2.30. Hood, trusting to his captains, disregarded this threat to the rear half of his force. Signals flew for the van to crowd sail and take its anchorage, and at 3.30 P.M. the leading ships began to anchor in line ahead, covered as they did so by the broadsides of the rear and the rear centre. Upon the latter the French were now keeping up a smart fire.
Between the Canada and her next astern, the Prudent, 64, which was a dull sailer, - there was a considerable interval. Towards it the French admiral pressed, aiming to cut off the three rear vessels; but Cornwallis threw everything aback and closed down upon his consort, a stirring deed in which he was imitated by the Resolution and Bedford, 74's, immediately ahead of him. De Grasse was thus foiled, but so narrowly, that an officer, looking from one of the ships which had anchored, asserted that for a moment he could perceive the Ville de Paris's jib inside the British line. As the rear of the latter pushed on to its place, it cleared the broadsides of the now anchored van and centre, and these opened upon the enemy, a great part of whom were strung out behind the British column, without opponents as yet, but hastening up to get their share of the action.
The Barfleur which anchored at 4.03, opened tire again at 4.40 P.M. Thus as the Canada and her few companions, who boiv the brunt of the day were shortening sail and rounding-to, still under a hot cannonade, the batteries of their predecessors were ringing out their welcome, and at the same time covering their movements by giving the enemy much else to think about. The Canada, fetching up near the tail of the column, and letting go in a hurry, ran out two cables on end, and found upon sounding that she had dropped her anchor in a hundred and fifty fathoms of water. The French column stood on, off soundings, though close to, firing as it passed, and then, wearing to the southward in succession, stood out of action on the port tack, its ineffectual broadsides adding to the grandeur and excitement of the scene, and swelling the glory of Hood's successful daring, of which it is difficult to speak too highly. The captain of the Resolution, Lord Robert Manners, writing a week later, passed upon this achevement a verdict, which posterity will confirm. " The taking possession of this road was well judged, well conducted, and well executed, though indeed the French had an opportunity which they missed of bringing our rear to a very severe account. The van and centre divisions brought to an anchor under the fire of the rear, which was engaged with the enemy's centre (Fig. 1); and then the centre, being at an anchor and properly placed, covered us while we anchored (Fig. 2), making, I think, the most masterly manoeuvre I ever saw."
Whether regard be had to the thoughtful preparation, the crafty management of the fleet antecedent to the final push, the calculated audacity of the latter, or the firm and sagacious tactical handling from the first moment to the last, Nelson himself never did a more brilliant deed than this of Hood's. All firing ceased at 5.30.
Naturally, an order taken up under such conditions needed some rectifying before further battle. As the proper stationing of the fleet depended in great measure upon the position of the van ship, Hood had put a local pilot on board her; but when the action ceased, he found that she was not as close to the shore as he had intended. The rear, on the other hand, was naturally in the most disorder, owing to the circumstances attending its anchorage. Three ships from the rear were consequently directed to place themselves ahead of the van, closing the interval, while others shifted their berths, according to specific directions. The order as finally assumed was as follows. The van ship was anchored so close to the shore that it was impossible to pass within her, or, with the prevailing wind, even to reach her, because of a point and shoal just outside, covering her position. From her the line extended in a west-north-west direction to the fifteenth ship, the Uurjlcur, 98, Hood's flagship, when it turned to north, the last six ships being on a north and south line. These six, with their broadsides turned to the westward, prevented a column passing from south to north, the only way one could pass, from enfilading the main line with impunity. The latter covered with its guns the approach from the south.
At daylight on the following morning, January 26th, the ships began changing their places, the French being then seven or eight miles distant in the south-south-east. At 7 A.M. they were seen to be approaching in line of battle, under a press of sail, heading for the British van. The Canada, which had begun at 5 A.M. to tackle her 200-odd fathoms of cable, was obliged to cut, whereby "we lost the small bower anchor and two cables with one 8-inch and one 9-inch hawsers, which were bent for springs." The ship had to work to windward to close with the fleet, and was therefore ordered by the Rear-Admiral to keep engaging under way, until 10.50, when a message was sent her to anchor in support of the rear. The action began between 8.30 and A.M., the leading French ship heading for the British van, seemingly with the view of passing round and inside it. Against this attempt Hood's precautions probably were sufficient; but as the enemy's vessel approached, the wind headed her, so that she could only fetch the third ship. The latter, with the vessels ahead and astern, sprung their batteries upon her. "The crash occasioned by their destructive broadsides was so tremendous on board her that whole pieces of plank were seen flying from her off side, ere she could escape the cool concentrated fire of her determined adversaries." She put her helm up, and ran along outside the British line, receiving the first fire of each successive ship. Her movement was imitated by her followers, some keeping off sooner, some later; but de Grasse in his flagship not only came close, but pointed his after yards to the wind, to move the slower. As he ported his helm when leaving the Barfleur, this brought these sails aback, keeping him a still longer time before the British ships thrown to the rear. "In this he was supported by those ships which were astern, or immediately ahead of him. During this short but tremendious conflict in that part of the field of battle, nothing whatever could be seen of them for upwards of twenty minutes, save De Grasse's white flag at the main-topgallant masthead of the Ville de Paris, gracefully floating above the immense volumes of smoke that enveloped them, or the pennants of those ships which were occasionally perceptible, when an increase of breeze would waft away the smoke."
Though most gallantly done, no such routine manoeuvre as this could shake Hood's solidly assumed position. The attempt was repeated in the afternoon, but more feebly, and upon the centre and rear only. This also was ineffectual; and Hood was left in triumphant possession of the tit-Id. The losses in the several affairs of the two days had been: British, 72 killed, 244 wounded; French, 107 killed, 207 wounded. Thenceforth the French fleet continued cruising to leeward of the island, approaching almost daily, frequently threatening attack, and occasionally exchanging distant shots; but no serious encounter took place. Interest was centred on Brimstone Hill, where alone on the island the British flag still flew. De Grasse awaited its surrender, flattering himself that the British would be forced then to put to sea, and that his fleet, increased by successive arrivals to thirty-two of the line, would then find an opportunity to crush the man who had outwitted and out-manoeuvred him on January 25th and 26th. In this hope lie was deceived by his own ineptness and his adversary's readiness. Hood was unable to succour Brimstone Hill, for want of troops; the French having landed 6,000 men, against which the British 2,400 could effect nothing, either alone or in co-operation with the garrison, which was but 1,200 strong. The work capitulated on the 10th of February. De Grasse, who had neglected to keep his ships provisioned, went next day to Nevis and anchored there to empty the store-ships. That evening Hood called his captains on board, explained his intentions, had them set their watches by his, and at 11 P.M. the cables were cut one by one, lights being left on the buoys, and the fleet silently decamped, passing round the north end of St. Kitts, and so towards Antigua. When De Grasse opened his eyes next morning, the British were no longer to be seen. " Nothing could have been more fortunately executed," wrote Lord Robert Manners, "as not one accident happened from it. Taking the whole in one light, though not successful in the point we aimed at, nevertheless it was well conducted, and has given the enemy a pretty severe check; and if you give him half the credit the enemy does, Sir Samuel Hood will stand very high in the public estimation."
|TRN3||The Royal Navy : a history from the earliest times to the present Vol III||William Laid Clowes||Digital Book|