Contents Back Home Exmouth
Pellew's/Exmouth's - A Compendium by Various Authors
Pellew and Frigates
From "Hornblower's Navy - Life at Sea in the Age of Nelson" by Steven Pope, Welcome Rain, 1998.
"Nelson once wrote that, after his death, the words want of frigates' would be found engraved on his heart. Other admirals might have put it less flamboyantly, but they all wanted frigates.
Smaller and faster than ships-of-the-line, frigates generally mounted between 28 and 44 guns on two decks, weighed anything from 500 to 850 tons, and carried 200-300 crewmen. Originally developed as the eyes' of a battle fleet on manoeuvres, they could operate as cruisers', patrolling trade routes, watching blockaded harbours, or functioning as long-range radiers.
Liable to be pulverized if attacked by a ship-of-the-line, but usually quick enough to escape the danger, frigates sailed with battle fleets, and were often the principal vessels in smaller squadrons, but were also the most secure and efficent class of warship for solo operations. In short, they were the most consistently useful warships afloat, and the Royal Navy could never get enough of them.
Speed, power and relative comfort also made frigates the carriers of choice for important cargoes in a hurry, and they often functioned as long-distance transport for VIPs. Napolean Bonaparte requisitioned a frigate to rush him from Egypt to France and supreme power in 1799, and more than fifteen years later he completed his final journey into tropical exile aboard a British frigate.
Frigates tended to get involved in a lot more fighting than bigger ships. A confrontation between battle fleets was a rarity, and often ended indecisively, but wartime actins between individual or small groups of frigates took place somewhere in the world on a weekly basis. Though these were sometimes inconclusive, frigate commanders on all sides teneded to be the boldest of their breed, and the wars were littered with miniature epics of tenacity and good seamanship.
They usually ended in a British victory, and the Royal Navy's frigate captains were popular heros during the first years of the war, when enticing enemy fleets into big battles was proving difficult. Chief among these paragons of derring-do was the Cornishman, Edward Pellew, whose many successes in the 1790s included the Navy's first combat victory o f the wars, and a spectacular rampage through a confused French fleet heading for Ireland in late 1796.
It was against a member of that fleet on it's return journey, in January 1797, that Pellew performed the one military feat considered beyond even the most audaciously handled frigate when his Indefatigle, aided by the frigate Amazon, hounded a 74-gun French ship-of-the-line to destruction.
The Royal Navy could call on about 150 firgates for service in 1793, and numbers rose steadily to peak at more than 220 by the early nineteenth century. This still left the British admirals begging for more, but they were rich beyond the dreams of their enemies.
France lost half it's 69 frigates to accident or action in the first ten years of the war, and survivors hardly dared put to sea thereafter. The Dutch Navy, which owned 43 good frigates in the early 1790s, had effectively been broken up by 1800, and its remnants then rotted in harbour. A similar fate eventually befell twenty Dutch Navy frigates and the few seaworthy examples left to Spain, which had owned about fifty in the early 1790s.
The only other military signifcant forces in Europe, Russia and Sweden, began the wars with 36 frigates respectively, and built a few more in wartime, but were strictly local in outlook, and there was only one navy in the world with frigates that could outfight the Royal Navy, and it hadn't even existed in 1793." (It was the U.S.A.)
PELLEW"S CAREER IN FRIGATES
From "The Frigates, An Account of the Lighter Warships of the Napoleonic Wars 1793-1815", by James Henderson CBE.
Frigates! cried Nelson, Were I to die this moment, want of frigates would be found engraved on my heart!'
Chapter 2 Success Story
"In May 1793 the [British] frigates VENUS and NYMPHE left Falmouth on a cruise in the Western Approaches, and finding little of interest, they separated to cover a wider field. Early in the morning of the 27th May the VENUS, about 300 miles west of Cape Finisterre, came across the [French] Semillante, a frigate of about twenty-five per cent more force; a sharp action ensued, of which the Semillante had much the worse; but just as the VENUS was closing in for the kill there hove in sight the Semillante's consort, the Cléopatre, a fresh and powerful frigate, and the VENUS could only run as well as her damaged rigging would permit. The Cléopatre chased her for two days, until she was rejoined by the NYMPHE, when the Cléopatre in turn made off. Both French ships went into Cherburg, then quite a small port, while the British pair made Falmouth.
The NYMPHE was a frigate of the 36-gun class, 938 tons, mounting twenty-six long 12-pounders on the main gun-deck, with two long pounders and eight carronades, 24-pounders, on the quarter deck and forecastle, and with a total complement of 240 officers and men. She was commanded by Captain Edward Pellew, a Cornishman who had already been favourably noticed for seamanship, knowledge of the dangerous French coast, and a capacity for training a crew. The VENUS being under repair, Pellew left Falmouth on the 17th of June, 1793, to cruise in the Channel, with some hope that the Cléopatre might be doing the same, she being, as far as was known, the only French ship of force north of Brest; the Semillante was safe enough for a few months.
Once, in the Roman Senate, a Commander-in-Chief was chosen on the grounds that in addition to all his military virtues He is favoured by Fortune'. Thus is was with Pellew: he was always lucky. Early the next morning, about twenty miles south of Start Point, a large sail was observed to the south-east, and this was none other than the Cléopatre. She was of almost the exactly the same force as the NYMPHE, but with eighty more men in her crew. At first she bore away, and both ships continued under full sail in a fair breeze on that fine June morning. The NYMPHE was overtaking, and when Captain Mullon of the Cléopatre recognized her, he shortened sail and cleared for action until the NYMPHE came up with her about six o'clock. A curious ceremony new took place, reminiscent of an earlier generation; of course the war was yet young, and very few in either ship had ever been in action. As the ships closed, the captains hailed each other and saluted by taking off their hats; the crew of the NYMPHE shouted Long Live King George' and gave three cheers, led by the captain waving his hat from the quarterdeck. Captain Mullon waved a cap of liberty to his men, who shouted Vive la Republique', and nailed the cap to the mast-head.
Then, as the guns came to bear, Captain Pellew put on his hat and the NYMPHE's broadside thundered out. The Cléopatre answered immediately, and at little more than a ship's length apart a furious cannonade carried on for three-quarters of an hour, the raw crews serving their guns like veterans, the captains gravely walking the quarter-decks amid the storm of shot. Suddenly, at the same time, both the mizzen-mast and the steering wheel of the Cléopatre were shot away, and, out of control, she swung around head-on to the NYMPHE, her jib-boom was pressed so hard against the mainmast of the NYMPHE that it looked as if it would carry away the damaged mast; but the jib-boom broke. The two ships remained hooked together by the rigging, and Captain Pellew, thinking the enemy intended to board him with their superior numbers, ordered his own boarders to repel them. However, the Cléopatre was in no condition for boarding, all her commissioned officers having been killed or wounded, and seeing some sign of confusion, Captain Pellew instantly gave the order to board. His men leapt over the bulwarks on to the forecastle of the Cléopatre, and through the gun-ports on to her main deck. With a fierce rush along the deck and the gangways they reached the quarter-deck and in less than ten minutes hauled down her colours.
On the quarter-deck they found the heroic Captain Mullon mortally wounded, his left hip and part of his back having been carried away by a round-shot. Resolute in his duty to the last, he remembered that he had in his pockets a list of private coast-signals, and as he lay in his death throes he pulled a paper from his pocket, bit it to pieces and was trying to swallow it when he died. In fact the paper he destroyed was his Captain's commission, and the signals fell into British hands; but no mistake could dim his heroic devotion to duty.
In so close and fierce an action, it was to be expected that casualties would be heavy. The NYMPHE had 23 killed, including 5 warrant officers, and 27 wounded, including 2 lieutenants and 2 midshipmen. The Cléopatre had 63 killed and all 3 lieutenants wounded. Both ships were extensively damaged, but repairable, and both arrived at Portsmouth on the 21st.
As has been said, Pellew was always lucky. This was the very first naval battle of the war which was fought out to a finish between ships of equal force manned with equal courage and resolution, and the result was a decisive British victory, with the captured vessel brought into a British port. King George III came down in person to Portsmouth and knighted Captain Pellew, the first hero-knighthood of the wars. His brother, Commander Israel Pellew, had been with him as a volunteer, having no ship at the time, and the King of his own authority made him a post-captain. First-Lieutenant Amherst Morris was promoted Commander by the Admiralty, which also bought in the prize, changing the name to OISEAU as there was already a CLEOPATRA in the Royal Navy. A tidy bit of prize-money nicely rounded off the honours.
Captain Israel Pellew was perhaps unlucky in that he spent the whole of his naval career under the shadow - the beneficent shadow - of his elder brother. He had a satisfactory career, ending up a knight and an admiral, but he was always being compared with his big brother. Israel commanded the CONQUEROR at Trafalgar, and early in the battle took possession of the French flag-ship, the Bucentaure. He sent his Captain of Marines on board to arrange the formalities of the surrender of the Commander-in-Chief, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, who asked to what she he had surrendered. The CONQUEROR, Captain Pellew.' Ah, I am happier to know that I have to give my sword to so distinguished an officer as Captain Sir Edward Pellew.' Perhaps Israel was a better name for a patriarch than for a captain; perhaps he was just not so lucky. His first frigate command, the AMPHION, was lying in harbor at Plymouth on 22nd September 1796 when she took fire and blew up, killing most of the crew and their visitors from shore.
Sir Edward Pellew was now given the 38-gun frigate ARETHUSA, while the NYMPHE, after repairs, was commanded by Captain George Murray. In the spring of 1794 they formed part of a squadron of five frigates cruising off the Breton coast, under the command of Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren in the FLORA, the others being the MELAMPUS, Captain Thomas Wells, and CONCORDE, Captain Sir John Richard Stachan. On the 23rd of April, before dawn, they descried a strange squadron which turned out to be the French frigates Engageante, Resolue and Pomone, with the corvette Babet, standing in line ahead in that order. The Babet was out of her class, having only twenty 8-pounders and two brass 6s. The FLORA overtook the Babet at 6:30 a.m., and firing into her, passed ahead and engaged the Pomone, a very different proposition, being the most powerful frigate in the world at that time. The ARETHUSA, next ahead, now engaged the Babet, which surrendered at 8:30 a.m., after a most courageous resistance to very superior force. By this time the FLORA had such a hammering from the Pomone that she had to drop astern, and now stopped to take possession of the Babet while the ARETHUSA and CONCORDE ushed on to overtake the Pomone, which had also been much damaged by the fire of the FLORA. Under the cannonade of the two British frigates, both her main and mizzen mast crashed down, and the shattered spars took fire, thus crippled, she hauled down her colours at 9:30 a.m., and was taken over by the ARETHUSA.
The Commodore now signaled the CONCORDE and MELAMPUS to chase the remaining two frigates, the NYMPHE being too far in the rear to have much hope of catching up. The CONCORDE, being the better sailer, intended to engage the Engageante in passing, hoping to do her enough damage to slow her down until the MELAMPUS could come up. However, the Resolue come to the aid of her consort, and together they did so much damage to the CONCORDE's rigging that she was glad to hang back and refit. The Resolue now stood ahead, and Sir Richard Strachan decided to make sure of the Engageante and let the other go. The battle lasted until 1:45 p.m., when the French frigate, having been so knocked about that she could neither fight nor flee, at last surrendered.
The British squadron was so superior in force that the result was to be expected: the great interest was the capture of the Pomone. Admiralty was surprised at her size and force; it had not been thought in the least likely that the Revolutionary Government could so quickly produce an entirely new and superior class of warship, and steps had to be taken to cope . . . . The Pomone was taken into the Royal Navy, and later became for a time the flagship of Sir John Borlase Warren; the Engageante was too much battered to go to sea, and became a hospital ship; the Babet was added to the Royal navy as a sloop, but was lost in 1801 with all hands in a West Indian hurricane.
Sir John's squadron continued to make things difficult off the coast of Brittany, especially in the vicinity of Brest, where a formidable French fleet was gathering. On the 23rd August 1794 they attacked a French frigate and two corvettes, and drove them on a rock-bound shore. The squadron was becoming the theme of the ballad-mongers-
If they run, why we'll follow, and run them ashore,And if they won't fight us, what can we do more?'
The ARETHUSA had a good name for balladry, lucky again:
ye jolly sailors bold,
Whose hearts are cast in honour's mould,
While English glory I unfold,
Huzza for the ARETHUSA!
On the 21st October 1794 Sir Edward Pellew in the ARETHUSA found himself in command of a small squadron: ARTOIS, Captain Edmund Nagel, DIAMOND, Sir William Sidney Smith, and GALATEA, Captain Richard Goodwin Keats. It is striking how many of the frigate captains of those early days became famous admirals before the wars ended; of course at that time ships were scarce, and Admiralty could give each one a picked captain and a picked crew too. On this day they sighted a big French frigate and gave chase; the ARTOIS sailed so much better than the others that she was alone when she overhauled the Revolutionnaire. Action lasted less three-quarters of an hours, when the French crew refused to fight anymore and forced the captain to surrender after a loss of eight killed and four wounded, as against three killed and five wounded in the ARTOIS. While the French ship was definitely more powerful than the British, she was on her first cruise. Being little damaged, she was a valuable addition to the Royal Navy, and Captain Nagel was knighted. (The ARTOIS, Captain Sir Edmund Nagel, wrecked on the French coast, 31st July 1797.)
What with captures and what with building, more ships were becoming available, and for the 1796 campaign there were two powerful frigate squadrons to cruise the waters around Brest, one under Sir John Borlase Warren in the POMONE, and the other under Sir Edward Pellew in the INDEFATIGABLE, one of the new 44-gun frigates made by taking a deck out of a 64-gun ship of the line. In his squadron was the recently captured Revolutionnaire, Captain Francis Cole. The squadron sighted a French frigate, and Pellew ordered Cole to get between her and the land, being a few miles off Ushant. This Captain Cole was able to do, but the night falling misty, he lost sight of her until after 9:00 p.m., when he made all sail and chased at great speed, coming up with her about midnight. Captain Cole hailed the French frigate, inviting her to surrender without fighting, in view of the powerful squadron coming up; this the French captain refused, but after a couple of broadsides the crew called out that they had surrendered. The ship was Unité, Captain Durand-Linois, of considerably less force than the Revolutionnaire, and having had nine killed and eleven wounded, while the British had no casualties at all. The fact that both the Revolutionnaire and the Unité were surrendered by their crews against the ishes of their officers shows the French Navy had not yet recovered from the anarchy of the Revolution. The surrender did not affect the career of Captain Linois, as we find him later as a Rear-Admiral commanding a squadron in the Indian Ocean. In this case, as well as having a mutinous crew, he was handicapped by the presence on board of the wife of the Govenor of Rochefort with a large family and domestic staff; Captain Pellew stopped a neutral merchant ship and put the family and retainers on board to continue their journey.
On the 20th of the same month, when the squadron was returning to Plymouth, a strange sail was sighted and the recognition signal was not replied; Pellew went in chase along with the AMAZON and CONCORDE. The chase went on for 15 hours at high speed, 168 miles being run at an average of 11 knots; the INDEFATIGABLE was well ahead of her consorts, and brought the enemy to action about midnight. The fight continued under full sail for two hours, during which time the French ship lost her mizzen-mast and her main top-mast, and the INDEFATIGABLE lost her gaff and her mizzen top-mast. The action was broken off while both made what repairs they could to their rigging, when the AMAZON and CONCORDE came up, and after they had taken up good positions the French ship surrendered. She was the Virginie, Captain Bergeret, who was highly praised by Sir Edward in his official dispatch, having had fifteen killed and twenty-seven wounded, and four feet of water in the hold, before he surrendered to an overwhelming force. The INDEFATIGABLE had no casualties whatever. The Virginie was a very fine new frigate of over 1,000 tons, and after repair was a most acceptable addition to the Royal Navy.
Aggression was the keynote of the policy of the French Directorate; l'attaque, l'attaque, et toujours l'attaque. Indeed, this policy had won them astounding victories over all Europe, had battered most of western Europe either submission or alliance. Of the maritime nations, Holland declared war on Britain in May, Spain in October of 1795. The combined fleets far out-numbered the British, who also could not abandon their far-spread responsibilities. The Directorate planned an attack on British soil; in the summer of 1796 general Hoche had a conference at Basle in Switzerland with Arthur O'Connor and Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the Irish patriots or traitors, depending on the angle of view, when a plan for a major invasion of Ireland was roughed out, and Wolfe Tone came to France to assist in the preparations and action. The French had contemplated landing 25,000 troops; the Irishmen thought 15,000 was enough (neither of the delegates had ever seen an army assembled) and were able to assure the French (who had no experience of negotiating with Irishmen) that immediately a French army landed it would be joined by a quarter of a million armed patriots. Their own imagination fired, the Directorate thought up a two-fold plan: the French Navy, having landed the Army in Ireland, was forthwith to proceed to India and conquer the British empire there; however, sanity broke through, and it was decided that the conquest of Ireland would be enough for one campaign. The plan was well worked out; the disembarkation was to be in Bantry Bay, and three different landing places were selected, according to the wind which might be blowing at the time; if none was feasible, then the troops were to debark at the mouth of the Shannon; should the fleet scatter during the approach, the ships were to rendezvous off Mizzen Head and remain thereabouts for five days to gather again. The only things left out of the calculations were the Royal Navy and the weather; as things turned out the Channel Fleet was absent, and the job had to be done by Admirals December and January, plus a few frigates.
By November, General Hoche and Vice-Admiral Morard-de-Galles had everything in readiness at Brest, awaiting only two reinforcing squadrons; one under Rear-Admiral Richery, did not arrive until 11th December, and the Toulon squadron under Rear-Admiral Villeneuve (he who lost at Trafalgar nine years later) did not seem to be coming at all. It was decided to set out, and on the 15th December the great fleet moved out of harbour and anchored in Camaret Bay; there were 17 line-of-battle ships, 13 frigates, 6 corvettes, 7 transports and a partially disarmed frigate serving as a powder transport. In addition to the large crews, the fleet had on board an army of probably 18,000 men, horse, foot and artillery, with vast quantities of stores; thus encumbered, they were to face the Royal Navy and the Atlantic in mid-winter.
The main Channel Fleet, under Lord Bridport, had gone into Portsmouth for the winter, agreeable to Admiralty instructions, leaving Brest a strong squadron of line-of-battle ships under Vice-Admiral Colpoys, cruising about forty miles off-shore, with and inshore squadron under Captain Sir Edward Pellew in the INDEFATIGABLE, having under his command the REVOLUTIONNAIRE, Captain Francis Cole, the AMAZON, Captain Robert Reynolds, the PHOEBE, Captain Robert Barlow, and a small armed lugger the DUKE OF YORK, Mr. Sparrow. Immediately on observing the decisive movement of the French fleet, Sir Edward dispatched the PHOEBE to inform Colpoys and, probably having doubts as to the promptitude of that very senior officer, at the same time sent the AMAZON to Portsmouth.
The French fleet had intended to sail out by the passage d'Iroise, the direct route from the port, but seeing the frigates so bold about the entrance, the Vice-Admiral concluded that they must be strongly supported, and he would run the risk of his ships being destroyed in detail as they came forth; so, the wind being fair from the east, he decided to take the southward passage through the dangerous Raz de Sein. Darkness falling and the wind rising gusty, he changed his mind and made for the passage d'Iroise, followed by those of the fleet who could divine his intentions. As a guide, he stationed a corvette at a suitable spot, with directions to fire guns, rockets and blue-lights to keep the fleet on the right track. Pellew thought he would like to join in the fun, so he took the INDEFATIGABLE right in among the French fleet, where he too fired guns, rockets and blue-lights, greatly to his own pleasure and the confusion of the French, so much so that the 74-gun Seduisant went ashore on the Grand Stevent rock near the entrance of the Raz; here she too, as signals of distress, began to fire guns, rockets and blue-lights, to add to the general mayhem. During the night she became a total loss, with more than half her complement of 1,300 men.
Having satisfied himself that the whole fleet had put to sea, and, in the prevailing easterly wind, could not get back into harbour, Pellew sent the REVOLUTIONNAIRE with this information to Vice-Admiral Colpoys and his little lugger to Falmouth with the same news. Later in the same day, having completed his job of watching the enemy and reporting their movements, he decided that would not do much good hanging about there and went off to Falmouth himself arriving on the 20th December and reporting to Admiralty by the semaphore telegraph.
Meanwhile the French fleet had got fairly to sea, but in three separate detachments, out of sight of each other and, fortunately for them, out of sight of Colpoys fleet of thirteen ships of the line; and also out of sight of their leaders, who had, for reasons doubtless clear to themselves, embarked together in the fast frigate Fraternité. Colpoys was somewhat at a loss, but on the 20th sighted a squadron of French line-of-battle ships and gave chase; this, however, was the tardy reinforcement from Toulon, which in the dirty weather got clean away and went into LOrient. In the chase and the weather the British fleet was damaged and scattered, and Vice-Admiral Colpoys turned up at Spithead on the 31st with only six ships left under his command.
Somehow the fragments of the French fleet met at the rendezvous off Mizzen Head in a spell of fine weather on the 21st, lacking only the Seduisant, wreaked, and missing the Nestor, 74, the Fraternité, frigate, with the two commanders-in-cheif, and two other frigates. Rear-Admiral Bouvet, an excellent sailor, took command of the ships, and General Grouchy (who did not distinguish himself at Waterloo eighteen years later) took over the Army; but try what they could, they could not get up Bantry Bay. Christmas Day, when Lord Bridport was trying to get the Channel Fleet out of Spithead, was the coldest in living memory; indeed the coldest since 1708; moreover, a bitter east wind drive a thin snow along with it. Now the French could appreciate the sailing directions given to the great Armada two centuries before: Take great heed lest you fall on the island of Ireland, for fear of the harm that may befall you on that coast, where the ocean raiseth such a billow as can hardly be endured by the greatest ships. Some went ashore, some collided with each other; all survivors were blown out of the Bay, and eventually, despairing of success and short of provisions, they made the best of their separate ways was back to France, harried by six frigates out of Cork.
One of the last to leave the coast was the Droits de lHomme, 74, Commodore la Crosse, a very good officer, having also on board the famous General Humbert. Pursuant to orders, the Commodore went to the second rendezvous, the mouth of the Shannon, where he captured a small British privateer and took her crew and passengers on board as prisoners. On the 7th January, as nobody else appeared, he left the station and made for France, intending to make landfall on Belle Isle and then go into one of the harbours in that vicinity. On the 13th January he thought himself in the correct latitude and about seventy or eighty miles west of his objective, the weather coming up foul from the westward. He sighted through the mist and rain two large ships to windward, turned away, and was glad to lose sight of them: actually they were French. Two hours later, with the storm rising and the sea very rough, the Droits de lHomme descried two more ships to leeward, between her and the land, wherever that might be; and what were these ships but the INDEFATIGABLE and the AMAZON, back on station!
Commodore la Crosse was a brave and experienced seaman, and knew very well what an immense superiority a ship of the line had over two frigates, even if one was larger than usual; but he also had on board a battalion of soldiers, many of whom must inevitably be killed in a gunnery battle, and also an important General. The wind was rising, and backing to south-west, a bad sign; and just after he sighted the British frigates a sudden squall carried away both his main and fore top-masts, cumbering his decks with wreckage and reducing his power of maneuvering. This made up his mind, after clearing the fallen spars he set off before the wind to the eastward, under mainsails only.
Sir Edward was no swashbuckler, to rush into battle regardless of any consideration; he knew the rule that frigates did not engage line-of-battle ships, and also that if he did engage and lost his ship he would be in serious trouble for hazarding her against odds which all experience showed to be impossible, the Droits de lHomme having almost three times his fire-power and at least five times his man-power. But he had that quality of all the great captains, a cool head amid tumult, which could access the enemys situation as accurately as his own. He had seen the topmast fall, and knew how that would handicap the handling of the Frenchman; he knew she was overcrowded and overloaded, and he saw the rising tempest as an ally; in such a sea the lower ports of the 74 would have to be kept shut, only opened briefly when the guns were ready to fire; a serious drawback for that formidable battery of 32-pounders. Above all, he knew his men and they knew him; there was complete mutual confidence; the battle was only to be won by discipline and seamanship, and his men knew well that there was no more consummate seaman afloat than Sir Edward Pellew.
The INDEFATIGABLE came up with the Droits de lHomme about 5:30 p.m., as darkness was falling; shortened sail to close-reefed topsails only, drew across the enemys stern and opened with a raking broadside, to which there could be no immediate reply; the battleship, however, was able to draw alongside, and pour in her powerful broadside, as well as a very heavy fire of musketry from the soldiers on board. Pellew now drew ahead, intending to cross the bows of his opponent and rake her again; this attempt was foiled, and the Droits de lHomme fried to run him down and board with her six hundred soldiers; but the INDEFATIGABLE evaded and continued the cannonade.
The AMAZON had been about eight miles astern when Sir Edward commenced the action, but made for the gun-flashes under all sail she could carry: she came up at about 6:45 p.m., fired a broadside, but with great skill Commodore la Crosse so maneuvered as to bring both his antagonists together on his weather side, where the heeling of his ship enabled him to open his lower-deck ports. Such a broadside was more than the frigates could stand, and at 7:30 p.m. both British ships went on ahead; the AMAZON because she had too much sail on, which she could not shorten during the engagement, and the INDEFATIGABLE to repair her rigging and sway up more shot from her hold. The Droits de lHomme was very glad of the respite, for one of 24-pounders on her upper deck had just burst, no doubt due to a breaking wave having stopped the muzzle with water just as the gun was fired. A gun-burst is as bad an accident as can happen; apart from the actual casualties caused by a 2 1/2 pound gun flying into fragments, every other gunner thinks his gun may be next.
At 8:30 p.m. the British ships re-engaged, and the desperate action continued for almost the whole of the winters night. No bald description can give the slightest idea of the scene; the howling of the gale, the tossing of the ships, the thunder and flame of the guns, the crashing of the shot and the incessant musketry. The frigates stationed themselves as well as they could, one on each bow of the battleship, where their broadside could rake her with the best effect and he could not bring her batteries to bear. By yawing first on one side and then on the other she was able to fire at least her forward guns into the frigates, and was always intent on the least chance to run in and board, which must have been decisive; but the seamanship of both the frigate captains frustrated every attempt.
The wind veered to the westward again, still rising. So high ran the sea, that in the INDEFATIGABLE the gun-crews on the main deck were waist-deep in water; and in the Droits de lHomme, every time they opened the lower ports to fire the 32-pounders, the water poured down on to the prisoners in the cable tier. So violent was the tossing that several of the main deck guns of the INDEFATIGABLE broke the ropes of their breeching-tackle, and others drew the ring-bolts out of the shipss side; the force of the recoil added to the tossing of the ship being more than any sane shipwright could be expected to to think about. A gun breaking loose in a tempest was the ultimate disaster; Sir Edward, who thought of everything, had thought of this too, and had ordered such a quantity of spare rope to be rove that every accident was dealt with immediately it occurred.
The fire of the frigates was deadly among the French gun-crews; but as fast as they fell others took their place, whether sailors or soldiers; no Frenchman hung back. At 10:30 p.m. the mizzen-mast of the Droits de lHomme was observed to be tottering, and shortly after Commodore la Crosse ordered it to be cut away, so as to fall clear of the deck. The driver, the main fore-and-aft sail of the ship, was rigged on the mizzen, and this loss made the ship very difficult to manage. The British frigates now took station on the quarters of the battleship, where their fire had even greater effect, as it was on the quarter-deck that most of the officers had their station. Several of them were wounded; on the other side, Lieutenant Bendall Littlehales, first of the AMAZON, was promenading the quarter-deck with his captain when he was knocked unconscious by the wind of a 32-pound shot from the lower-deck battery of the Droits de lHomme. Captain Reynolds had him carried below; as soon as he came round he insisted on returning to his post; but it was months before the bruising disappeared; one of the earliest examples of super-sonic shock.
Shortly after midnight the Droits de lHomme had fired off all her round-shot and started firing shell, which, according to her log, made the British stand off a little further. She must have fired at least 4,000 rounds to have exhausted her shot, all 24 or 32 pounds. By four oclock in the morning of the 14th January, exhaustion was beginning to show, after eleven hours of furious combat under the worst possible conditions. The AMAZON had three feet of water in her hold, only the stump of her mizzen-mast standing, all her other masts and yards seriously damaged, and she had repaired her riggings so often that she had not a yard of spare cordage left. Her casualties, however, were only three killed and fifteen wounded. The INDEFATIGABLE had four feet of water in her hold, and all her mast damaged, although, by the diligence of the crew, still standing; she had no killed and nineteen wounded. It was far different on the Droits de lHomme, where there were 103 killed and 150 wounded.
Still the exhausted crews stood to their guns, and still the fury of the cannonade thundered out over the fury of the tempest; until at half-past four a break in the flying clouds allowed the moon to enlighten the scene, and Lieutenant George Bell, fourth of the INDEFATIGABLE, whose action station was on the forecastle, saw land dead ahead to the north-east, less than two miles away and with breakers in front of it. By the time he could get to the quarter-deck with this news the breakers were clearly visible from there. Pellews appreciation of the situation was instantaneous; thinking of everything, he ordered the signal for imminent danger to be made to the AMAZON; ordered his lieutenants to cease fire, and his sailing-master to put the ship across the wind. One can imagine the thoughts of the exhausted crew as the successive orders came through: Cease fire! Hands to the braces! Stand by to go about! Everybody knew what was involved. In such weather the amount of sail carried must be exactly right; if too much, the ship would be dismasted and drive ashore; if too little, as she turned into the wind she would lose steerage-way and broach-to in the trough of the waves. Very well: but what of her shot-through masts, her cut rigging, her torn sails? Would she stand? Orders were given and carried out as steadily as if at sail drill in Spithead; round she swung into the wind, hung in stays for a sickening moment, and then with a thunderous clapping the close-reefed top-sails filled on the other tack, and she sped away from the breakers like a frightened gull. Not so her consort; not so her enemy. Lacking her mizzen-mast and driver, the AMAZON could not bear up into the wind; she tried to wear round with it, but had not sea-room enough, and before five oclock ran ashore. The Droits de lHomme tried to bear up into the wind, but instantly her foremast and bowsprit carried away, leaving only the torn mainsail standing; she tried to anchor, but the anchor would not hold, and shortly she struck heavily on the sandbank; swung broadside on to the sandbank, struck again, turned on her side and remained fast, with great seas breaking right over her.
The INDEFATIGABLE was far from safe. This glimpse of land had looked like the island of Ushant, and there was plenty of sea-room on her new course, if that was the case. But at first light breakers were seen ahead again, and there was nothing for it but to go about again. Dawn came about half-past six, and again breakers were seen ahead, and again she had to go about. As the light improved, the AMAZON was seen ashore, and two miles south, the Droits de lHomme on her side, with a great surf beating right over her. No attempt at rescue could be contemplated, for now they could make out where they were: right in the dangerous Bay of Audierne, and head of them Penmark Point, with the dreaded Penmark Rocks around it, the breakers leaping to top-mast height. But the situation, though desperate, could at least be seen; no more knocking about in the darkness from one hazard to another. For four, mortal hours the worn-out sailors toiled at the ropes, beating up against the relentless storm, desperately clawing off the sprouting reefs; until at eleven oclock the INDEFATIGABLE cleared the last of the rocks and stood out to the open sea.
Shortly after the AMAZON struck, six of her crew stole a small boat and tried to go off on their own; but she soon swamped and all six were drowned. Captain Reynolds set his men to constructing rafts, and when their was flotation for everybody the whole ships company including the wounded were enrafted and drifted to shore, where they all arrived safely by nine oclock that morning, having struck about five. Of course they became prisoners of war.
Things were quite different on board the Droits de lHomme. One of the English prisoners taken off the Shannon, Lieutenant Pipon, wrote a long account of the wreck. As soon as she struck the prisoners were brought up from the cable tie to the deck. They could see the AMAZON on shore, about two miles away, and to seaward the INDEFATIGABLE, beating off the Penmarks under close-reefed topsails in a tremendous sea; from the Droits de lHomme she appeared to be doomed. On board the French ship all was chaos, men rushing about screaming and shouting without any apparent purpose; the same men who had served their guns so steadily during the most bloody battle seemed now to be quite unnerved. The officers had given up all command and responsibility, and the mens only thought was sauve qui peut. As a consequence, although the wreck was scarcely two hundred yards from shore, where hundreds of people had assembled from the adjacent town of Plouzenac, it was five days until the rescue was completed, and two-thirds of the survivors of the battle perished of starvation and exposure.
This was the last frigate action fought by Sir Edward Pellew. When we next hear of him, he is in command of a squadron of line-of-battle ships. About the time of Trafalgar he was some years Rear-Admiral, Commander-in-Cheif, East Indies. After the death of Lord Collingwood, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, Bart., became Commander-in-Cheif, Mediterranean, flying his flag in the NEW CALEDONIA of 120 guns, having with him on board - surprise! - Rear-Admiral Israel Pellew as Captain of the Fleet. He finished the wars as Admiral Viscount Exmouth, Knight Grand Cross of the Bath, and reputed to have amassed £300,000 in prize money. His descendants bear his title to this day. But amongst all his well-won honors and rewards, the story men always told of him was how the INDEFATIGABLE fought a French 74 in a tempest the whole of a winters night, ran her on shore, and then weathered the Penmarks.
It was a feat of arms and seamanship such as never been done before, and never was done again.