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Capture of the Minerve

3rd July 1803
Part of : The Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815)
Previous action : Capture of the Bacchante 25.6.1803
Next action : Racoon vs Lodi 11.7.1803


United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Ship NameCommanderNotes
Minerve (38) 1795-1803
British 38 Gun
5th Rate Frigate
Jahleel BrentonBritish
Naval Sailor
Service 1790-1840
Captured 11 killed, 16 wounded

République Française

Ship NameCommanderNotes
Le Chiffon 1803-1803
French Unrated Gun-brig
Le Terrible 1803-1803
French Unrated Gun-brig

Notes on Action


On the night of July 2nd, the British frigate Minerve, 38, Captain Jahleel Brenton, one of the Guernsey squadron under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez, being stationed off Cherbourg to blockade that port, was so unfortunate, through the fault of a pilot, as to run aground upon one of the huge cones, filled with stones, which marked the first beginnings of the breakwater. She struck upon the westernmost cone, about a mile, or a little less, from Fort Liberte. As soon as she had struck, the fog lifted and showed her position to the enemy. Fort Liberte opened fire upon her, and the two gun-brigs, Chiffon and Terrible, got under way. Captain Brenton lowered and manned his boats, and despatched them to cut out a craft which lay under the batteries, and which was large enough to carry out his bower anchor. At the same time, the frigate's launch, with a carronade, was sent to engage the French gun-boats. The first of the British boats away was one commanded by Lieutenant the Hon. William Walpole, who, under a heavy fire, dashed at, and carried without assistance, a French lugger laden with stone. The lugger was taken alongside the Minerve. Up to that time, the Chiffon and Terrible had caused little trouble, as their commanders had expected the frigate to assail them. They at length, however, discovered her real situation, and at once took up positions on her bows, whence they could rake her. The lugger had to be veered clear of the frigate, and emptied of the stone which was on board; and this was slow and awkward work under a heavy fire. The moon had come out, so that the French were able to see their target clearly. The British crew, busy trying to save the ship, could make little or no reply, and then only from the guns on the forecastle, those on the main-deck having been run aft to lighten her. The lugger was repeatedly struck, and the carpenters were kept busy plugging the shot holes. At last, when, at about midnight, the bower anchor was ready on board the lugger, and when the latter had begun to warp, by means of a hawser attached to a kedge anchor, to the position where the anchor was to be dropped, the hawser was shot away. The boats, however, came to the lugger's help, and took her in tow; and the anchor was finally let go in its proper place. But the trials of the Minerve did not end there. The wind completely dropped towards the morning, leaving the frigate helpless. Despairing of saving her, Captain Brenton ordered the wounded to be placed in the lugger, and fires to be prepared, whilst he destroyed his papers and private signals. No sooner had this been done than the wind rose, rendering it possible to get the ship away. The wounded were returned to the cock-pit: under a heavy fire which killed or wounded several men at the capstan, the crew hove in upon the bower anchor; and at length, at about 5 A.M. on the 3rd, their persevering efforts were rewarded by the floating of the Minerve. But just as all were congratulating themselves upon their escape, the wind fell once more; and the inset of the tide carried the frigate into the harbour and laid her upon a cone. There she remained under a heavy fire till six, when, seeing that the position was hopeless, Brenton struck his flag. The Minerve's loss was 11 killed and 16 wounded. All her masts were much injured.

Brenton, perhaps indignant at the fact that the Chiffon and Terrible claimed the whole credit of the success, wrote to the officer commanding the French troops at Cherbourg, that he had handed his sword to the captain of the Chiffon, but that the fire of Fort Liberte had been the determining cause of his surrender. This started a pretty quarrel between the French navy and army.

According to the navy, there were only three guns in Fort Liberte; and those soon ceased firing and waited for daylight, finding the range too great it is variously given at from 1338 to 2338 metres, whilst the point-blank range of the French 36-pr. was only 779 metres. According to the army, the Minerve was " excessively annoyed by the well-served artillery of the fort." British accounts give Fort Liberte 70 guns and 15 mortars, so that the discrepancy in the stories is greater than usual. After this lapse of time, it cannot easily be determined who told the truth; but, at least, no discredit rests upon Captain Brenton and his crew, who did all that bravery and skill could do amid the most untoward circumstances. Brenton was kept a prisoner for thirty months; many of his men were confined for eleven years. Napoleon characteristically announced in Brussels that a " superb frigate of the enemy's has just surrendered to two of our gun-boats," suppressing all mention of the fact that the " superb frigate" was helplessly aground. The Minerve, upon being got off by the French, was nevertheless renamed Canonniere, in honour of her supposed captors. The force of the French gun-boats is uncertain. Each probably mounted three 24-prs. and two 36-pr. carronades.

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