Britain’s Navy faced a range of challenges in the second half of the 18th century. The protection of a worldwide network of trade and empire imposed continuous demands on its resources. From 1775 to 1783, the Navy was engaged in an ultimately losing battle to suppress Britain’s North American colonies in their struggle for independence.
Nor could national security be taken for granted, in view of Britain’s lack of Continental allies and the ever-present possibility of a hostile Franco-Spanish alliance. Given the small size of the Army, only a well maintained and drilled fleet could fend off the ultimate threat of invasion and occupation.
It was fortunate for Britain in these critical decades that, alongside some decidedly mediocre naval commanders, it possessed at least two outstanding admirals. George Rodney and Richard Howe were near contemporaries. Both made a major contribution to the development of the Navy.
Neither man, it has to be said, was a paragon of virtue. Rodney was difficult to work with, greedy, and addicted to gambling. He spent four years in France, during a short period of peace with the traditional enemy, to escape his creditors.
Howe was aloof with his officers, and so inarticulate that his orders were not always readily understood. Late in his career he spent five years as First Lord of the Admiralty, where poor relationships with his colleagues in government limited his effectiveness as the country’s chief naval administrator.
Both admirals, however, closed their careers with outstanding successes against French forces – Rodney in 1782 at the Battle of the Saintes, in the West Indies; Howe 12 years later in the ‘Glorious First of June’. These victories redeemed their other shortcomings and earned them a place among the foremost naval commanders of their time. They were both personally brave, adept tacticians, and, despite their flaws, effective leaders.
An erratic genius
George Rodney was the son of a retired army officer who was ruined in the South Sea Bubble, the most-notorious financial crash of the 18th century. The young man’s career prospects were saved through the influence of his godfather’s family, which gave him access to the social reach of the Duke of Chandos.
In common with most naval officers of his time, he joined the Navy in his early teens. Rodney was not yet 20 when he served as lieutenant to his uncle, Lord Aubrey Beauclerk, who commanded a frigate in the Mediterranean. Five years later, he was captain of the 60-gun Plymouth.
Rodney also began to accumulate prize money through his involvement in the capture of a number of French ships – money which was used to fund an increasingly ambitious lifestyle.
Forays into politics, as the MP for a succession of constituencies, drained his already stretched finances. He also tended to request leave at critical points on grounds of poor health.
For all his defects, Rodney was an efficient and capable officer. He showed energy in preparing the fleet at Plymouth in the opening stages of the Seven Years War. Posted to the West Indies in 1762, he captured the French colony of Martinique, which posed a threat to British territories in the region. This was followed by the seizure of St Lucia, Grenada, St Vincent, and finally Havana.
The fighting spirit of Rodney and his crews was assisted by a technical innovation that was starting to be applied to British ships at this time. This was the practice of sheathing a ship’s hull below the waterline with copper, which extended the vessel’s life by protecting the timber from marine organisms, and made it a more effective fighting platform.
Rodney’s qualities were shown to best advantage in a series of naval actions in the years 1779-1782. This was a time of heightened danger to British imperial interests, as the French had formally given their support to the American colonists in the war of independence. In alliance with Spain, French naval power represented a real threat.
Rodney was appointed commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands, but, before returning to the West Indies, he was first despatched to the Mediterranean. After relieving a Spanish siege of Gibraltar, in January 1780 he encountered an enemy convoy off Cape St Vincent.
In the ‘Moonlight Battle’, fought unusually under cover of darkness and with the wind blowing the British ships towards the shore, Rodney demonstrated an aggressiveness that produced decisive results. In the chase which ensued, six of the eleven Spanish ships-of-the-line were seized and one was blown up.
Arriving in the West Indies, it took Rodney time to accustom his officers to his ideas of how to conduct a battle. An early encounter with the French fleet off Martinique ended inconclusively. This was because the British captains had not understood that Rodney intended them to concentrate their fire on the enemy’s rear, forcing the French van and centre to place themselves in a vulnerable position as they raced back to give support.
His style of leadership was authoritarian and centralised, and it took time to train his subordinates in his way of thinking.
Six of the eleven Spanish ships-of- the-line were seized and one was blown up.
Victory at the Saintes
Rodney’s West Indies command highlighted his weaknesses as well as his strengths. He was impatient with those who did not meet his own standards, distracted by the pursuit of plunder, and, before the end of 1781, was again claiming that he had to return home to restore his health. Yet, when a real emergency arose in the Caribbean a few months later, he was the admiral to whom the authorities turned.
The French had captured a series of British islands, and it was clear that Jamaica was their next target. Their admiral, the Comte de Grasse, was reinforced by a convoy carrying 6,000 troops, which evaded British forces to reach Fort Royal, Martinique. In early April 1782, with a complement of 33 ships-of-the-line, he set off to rendezvous with his Spanish allies for the assault on Jamaica.
Admiral George Rodney (1718-1792)
1732 – Joined the Navy
1741 – Captain of the 60-gun Plymouth
1747 – Took part in the Second Battle of Finisterre
1749 – Governor of Newfoundland
1762 – Took part in the capture of Martinique
1774-1778 – Fled to France to escape his debts
1779-1782 – Appointed to command in the West Indies
1780 – Defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Cape St Vincent (‘the Moonlight Battle’)
1782 – Defeated the French at the Battle of the Saintes
Rodney and his second-in-command, Admiral Samuel Hood, gave chase with 36 ships. The British were in a stronger position than at the time of Martinique, with more ships and higher morale than the French. In addition, Rodney had now had two years to impress his personality and ideas on the fleet.
The ensuing battle was fought close to a group of islands known as the Saintes, part of the Guadeloupe archipelago. De Grasse might have escaped, had an accident not befallen one of his ships, which he then tried to protect with his entire fleet.
In the early morning of 12 April, the two fleets formed lines of battle and Rodney signalled close engagement with the enemy. With little wind, the opposing ships passed each other at no more than four knots, exchanging broadsides at a distance of 100 yards.
De Grasse ordered his ships to put themselves on the same tack as the British, but this was impossible to achieve under heavy close-range fire. The wind then suddenly shifted to the south-east, plunging the French into disarray and opening gaps in the line. This was the decisive moment of the battle. Rodney’s flagship, the 98-gun Formidable, passed through one of the gaps.
Rodney’s use of the tactic of breaking the line remains controversial. Some accounts have him discussing the manoeuvre in advance, whereas others argue that it was accidental, or that his fleet captain, Charles Douglas, deserves the credit.
At any rate, other British ships followed suit, so that the French fleet’s order of battle was broken in three places. As they did so, Rodney’s ships directed their fire at the under-defended bows and sterns of the helpless French vessels. Cannon shot raked the length of the enemy decks, causing maximum damage and loss of life among the shaken, disorientated crews. The recent introduction of the short-barrelled carronade to the British fleet added to the carnage.
As the wind strengthened, the survivors of the French fleet tried to escape. In total, one ship-of-the-line was destroyed and four were captured. These included de Grasse’s flagship, the Ville de Paris, which did not surrender until all its guns had been put out of action. The captain of the Formidable, who went to take the French admiral’s surrender, reported that he was over his shoe buckles in blood at every step he took on the deck.
Some voices on the British side, including Hood, argued that Rodney should have pushed home his advantage to capture almost all the enemy ships. But this did not take account of the heavy battle damage suffered by the British fleet, nor of the risks of a chase after nightfall.
At the time, the victory was hailed as a stroke of genius, which had secured Jamaica and restored the Navy’s prestige after some years of uneven performance. Breaking the line was to be employed with even more devastating effect by Nelson at Trafalgar, 23 years later.
A meticulous professional
Richard Howe possessed even more influential elite connections than Rodney. It clearly assisted his career that he was the son of a peer and a personal favourite of King George III. Added to these advantages, however, was a keen natural ability.
Before the age of 30, Howe accumulated a breadth of experience in several different parts of the world, from the West Indies to Africa.
In 1746, he was wounded in the head in a stand-off with two larger French ships operating off the Scottish coast in support of the Jacobite cause. Nine years later, it was Howe’s ship, the 60-gun Dunkirk, which fired the opening shots of the Seven Years War when it encountered a French ship in the mouth of Canada’s St Lawrence River.
Two events as a captain, under the leadership of Admiral Hawke, confirmed Howe’s credentials as a potential leader. In 1757, commanding the 74-gun Magnanime, he took part in an assault on the French naval base of Rochefort, gaining a success in an otherwise abortive expedition.
To the surprise of more-cautious colleagues, he captured a heavily armed fortress on the offshore island of Aix by sailing within 40 yards and then opening up a ferocious 35-minute bombardment. He ordered all the crew to lie down on the deck with the exception of the pilot, helmsman, and himself. His ship’s firepower was not up to the task of reducing the fort, but the psychological shock of the attack undermined the willpower of the defenders.
Two years later, the Magnanime was the first to pursue the French fleet into Quiberon Bay, in gale-force winds, forcing the surrender of the Héros (see MHM 117).
Yet there was more to Howe than sheer courage and daring, important though these qualities were. He applied himself, with meticulous attention to detail, to all aspects of naval management, and he was not afraid to challenge conventional thinking. He divided the crew of the Magnanime into divisions, each one under a junior officer, so that sailors worked in more-cohesive, integrated teams. Later in the century, with the size of ships’ companies increasing, the divisional system proved indispensable.
In battle, he grasped the importance of positioning his most-powerful ships where the enemy would not expect them – at the ends of the line of battle rather than in the centre. This would give his side the element of surprise in a clash with a numerically superior opponent.
It was Howe’s misfortune that he did not have an opportunity to put his ideas into practice until his appointment, in 1776, to head the naval forces waging the American War of Independence. Here he was never likely to succeed. Howe did not have the resources needed both to blockade the seaboard and to support the British Army, coincidentally led by his younger brother, Sir William Howe.
The flow of French supplies across the Atlantic was never seriously impeded, even before France formally joined the war in 1778. Howe did display his tactical virtuosity against a larger French force, preventing it from moving first against New York and then Rhode Island, where the British were besieged, but this was a holding action in a doomed struggle.
Of greater long-term importance for the Navy were Howe’s organisational innovations. He stood out in particular for his improvements to the command and control of fleets.
In 1790, he introduced a new system of signalling at sea, which was much simpler than the old method of displaying different combinations of flags and hauling sails up and down. Howe issued a signal book in which numbers corresponded to different coloured flags. It was easier for signal officers to understand – though, as the experience of the Glorious First of June was to show, it did not always produce a perfectly executed manoeuvre. Naval warfare in the age of sail was subject to too many unpredictable variables for that to be possible.
The Glorious First of June
Howe’s greatest victory came late in his career, at the age of 68, when he was no longer in good health. He was appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet in February 1793, on the day when war was officially declared between Britain and Revolutionary France.
The following spring found him unsuccessfully searching the Atlantic waters for a convoy that was taking badly needed grain to feed the starving population of Paris. At the end of May 1794, some 400 miles west of the island of Ushant, Howe located the escorting French fleet. The two fleets were almost equally matched: Howe with 25 ships-of-the-line and the French admiral, Villaret-Joyeuse, with 26.
After following the French for several days in thick mist, on 1 June the weather cleared and Howe had the weather gage – in other words, he was closer than the enemy to the direction of the wind, and so had the choice of either fighting or sailing away. He decided to position his fleet for battle.
Howe’s plan differed from Rodney’s at the Saintes, in that he intended his ships to break through the French line at many points and individually to engage their opposite numbers. The British line was then to reform on the other side, a manoeuvre designed to take the French by surprise.
Not all of Howe’s captains understood the order correctly, but those ships that pierced the French line engaged in an intense series of single combats. Defence and Marlborough, the first British ships to break through, were completely dismasted. Brunswick and its opponent, Vengeur du Peuple, became entangled and hammered away at each other for four hours before the French vessel surrendered. It sank shortly afterwards, as water poured in through its shot-holes and lower gun-ports.
In many cases, the ships were so close together that the British decks were littered with scorched fragments of French powder bags and cartridges.
The French took far heavier casualties – an estimated 7,000 killed and wounded, compared to fewer than 1,200 on Howe’s side. They suffered a total of seven ships captured or sunk, while the British lost none. France would not be able to contest British dominance in the North Atlantic for the duration of the war.
Admiral Richard Howe (1726-1799)
1739 – Joined the Navy in the 40-gun Pearl
1755 – Captain of the 60-gun Dunkirk; involved in the first naval action of the Seven Years War
1757-1761 – Took part in raiding and blockade of the French Atlantic coast
1759 – Fought under Admiral Hawke in the Battle of Quiberon Bay
1776-1778 – Commander-in-chief in North America during American War of Independence
1783-1788 – First Lord of the Admiralty, in charge of naval administration
1793 -Commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet
1794 – Defeated the French fleet at ‘the Glorious First of June’
The revolutionary government must shoulder some of the blame for the outcome. The French authorities had transferred many long-serving sailors to the army, optimistically believing that ideological commitment would compensate for lack of training and experience. Politically motivated purges meant that many of the ships’ captains were recently promoted individuals who knew little of fighting and manoeuvring. In terms of seamanship and gunnery the British were clearly their superiors.
This was the Royal Navy’s first encounter with the forces of Revolutionary France, and news of the victory was greeted with wild rejoicing. There was some uncertainty about the name to give a battle that had occurred far out in the Atlantic. ‘The Glorious First of June’ caught on as the title of a hastily improvised, celebratory stage play.
Yet, as with Rodney after the Saintes, there was some criticism of Howe for failing to pursue more of the enemy fleet. More importantly, Villaret-Joyeuse’s resistance gave the grain convoy an opportunity to slip through and reach France.
That the victory was not more complete was due in part to Howe’s age and failing health. He was said to have been on deck continuously for five days and, by the end, he was exhausted. Apart from playing a part in settling the Spithead naval mutiny three years later, Howe’s active career was effectively at an end.
The balance sheet
Like most successful commanders, Rodney and Howe were both fortunate in the mistakes and weaknesses of their opponents. Both were open to the criticism that they allowed a truly crushing victory to elude them. Neither was a really effective ‘team player’, with the gifts needed to make their subordinates into a cohesive ‘band of brothers’.
Yet they stand out for the way in which they turned around the fortunes of the Navy at a time of grave danger to their country’s interests. And, in the impressive example they set, they provided a vital bridge to the still greater achievements of Horatio Nelson – whose achievement it would be both to bring the tactical system pioneered by Rodney and Howe to its consummation, and, due to his exceptional personal qualities, to forge a true ‘band of brothers’ among the officers and crews he led.
Copper sheathing of ships
Lining the underside of a warship’s hull with copper plates gave protection against damage done by the Teredo worm, a wood-boring mollusc found in warmer waters. It was first adopted by the Royal Navy in 1761. The term is the origin of the term ‘copper-bottomed’, meaning trustworthy. By the 1780s, copper and zinc bolts replaced the iron ones used at first to secure the plates. This eliminated the problem of galvanic corrosion, caused by contact between different metals in salt water. As a result, ships proved more durable in far-flung parts of the world where dry docks were not available for carrying out maintenance. The practice also increased a ship’s speed by preventing the growth of barnacles on the hull.
Further reading Peter Trew (2005) Rodney and the Breaking of the Line (Pen & Sword). David Syrett (2005) Admiral Lord Howe: a biography (History Press).
ALL images: Wiki Commons.