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Cape Finesterre, "Calder's Action", 22nd July 1805

Historical Background

At the end of March 1805, Admiral Villeneuve, commanding the combined Franco-Spanish fleet, had managed to escape from Toulon and sail to the West Indies. Unable to meet Admiral Ganteaume's Brest fleet, which remained blockaded in port, and on learning from a captured British merchantman that Admiral Nelson had arrived at Antigua, he decided to return to Europe.

News of Villeneuve's departure reached Nelson and he headed toward Gibraltar, sending the frigate Curieux, back to England with the news. Captain Betteworth in command of the Curieux had a stroke of luck during the journey home. He overhauled Villeneuve’s fleet, and was able to keep the fleet in sight long enough to determine it was heading for the Bay of Biscay.

This news was passed to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, on the 9th of July. As a result, Rear-Admiral Cornwallis was ordered to sail across Villeneuve’s possible northern route, and the squadron blockading Rochefort was ordered to join Vice Admiral Robert Calder who lifted his blockade of Ferrol and was sent to wait 100 miles off Cape Finisterre with an expanded fleet of fifteen ships of the line and two frigates.

During the crossing back to Europe, the French ship Indomptable lost her main spar in a gale that also damaged some other ships. The combined fleet comprising twenty ships of the line, seven frigates, and two brigs sighted land near Cape Finisterre on the 22th of July. The fleets sighted each other at about 11.00am that morning.

With poor wind and low visibility, several hours of manoeuvering ensued, the action not beginning in earnest at about 5.15pm. Despite inferior numbers, the British fleet, with the Hero under Captain Alan Hyde Gardner in the vanguard, bore down on the combined fleet. In heavy fog, the battle was a confused mêlée with neither Admiral able to gain any significant advantage in the battle. Both sides spent long periods having no other option than to fire at each others gun flashes. In the failing light and confusion HMS Malta, the rear-most ship in the British line, found that she was surrounded by five Spanish ships. In spite of the overwhelming odds, Captain Sir Edward Buller forced the Spanish 80-gun San Rafael to strike her colours at about 8pm. In addition, he sent the Malta's boats to take capture the Spanish 74-gun Firme.

At 8.25pm Calder signalled an end to the action planning to continue the battle the next day. However, due to the thick fog and failing light, some ships continued to fire for another hour.

At break of day on the 23rd of July, Calder decided not to attack a second time against superior numbers, instead concentrating on protecting the damaged British ships and securing the two captured Spanish prizes. In addition, Calder was concerned that the previously blockaded fleets at Rochefort and Ferrol could put to sea and support Villeneuve's fleet.

by Robert Phillips, Canvey Island, September 2013
Strategema Games


Sir Robert Calder's Action, 22 July 1805 (From Jenkins' Naval Achievements reprinted by Sim Comfort Associates)

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