Rodney, Howe, and the rise of British seapower

In the half century between the Battle of Quiberon Bay (1759) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Britain’s Royal Navy transformed naval tactics and established global maritime supremacy.

Developments in the technology of sail power and naval gunnery had combined to make decisive battle at sea increasingly elusive. Opposing fleets tended to sail on parallel courses and engage in long-range cannonades, making it difficult to inflict crippling damage, and relatively easy to break off the action at any time.

But Britain was a fast-rising maritime and colonial power. With a burgeoning commercial economy and exponentially expanding demand for both imports and markets, it was already well-advanced in building a world empire.

BELOW The Battle of the Saintes, 1782. Detail from a painting by Thomas Mitchell. Admiral George Rodney’s tactic of ‘breaking the line’ may have been accidental, but it was hailed at the time as a stroke of genius.
BELOW The Battle of the Saintes, 1782. Detail from a painting by Thomas Mitchell. Admiral George Rodney’s tactic of ‘breaking the line’ may have been accidental, but it was hailed at the time as a stroke of genius.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The relatively open society of 18th-century Britain – more open, at any rate, than the tradition-bound absolute monarchies of the European continent – encouraged a spirit of enterprise and facilitated the advancement of talented men of modest means. This was notably so in the Royal Navy.

Two generations of British naval officers, many of them self-made men recruited from the middle class, grappled with the problem presented by a tactical doctrine that seemed to preclude clear-cut victory.

Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, the victor at Quiberon Bay, was one of these. We reported on his career and his culminating triumph in MHM 117 – a victory marked by exceptional determination and aggression in bringing an enemy fleet to action despite a raging storm. This was part of the British revolution in tactics: a killer instinct.

The will to close with the enemy was based on superior British seamanship and gunnery – that is, on the knowledge that if only the enemy could be run down and brought to battle, superiority of ships, men, and training would do the rest.

There was the rub: how to achieve the close-quarters action where British advantage could have decisive effect. The solution to this problem was to overturn the hallowed practice of sailing in parallel lines and instead attempt to break the enemy line – a tactic designed to bring the British ships to point-blank range.

In the second of our two specials in this mini-series, Graham Goodlad charts the careers of two leading British admirals, George Rodney and Richard Howe, both of whom succeeded in ‘breaking the line’: Rodney at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, Howe on the Glorious First of June in 1794. Neil Faulkner then analyses British naval tactics – their strengths and limitations – at the latter battle, arguing that Howe’s intention was sound, but that he and other British admirals had not yet devised an ideal method of execution.

This, of course, would be the achievement of Horatio Nelson, one of the greatest naval commanders in world history. He will be the subject of the last in our mini-series.