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Battle of Cape Ortegal, "Strachan's Action", 4th November 1805

Background

Towards the end of the Battle of Trafalgar, Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley, in command of the van of the combined fleet, attempted to assist the collapsing combined fleet centre. After an unsuccessful attempt to break through to Villeneuve's flagship, the 80-gun Bucentaure, he commanded his ships to disengage and sail southwards. The Four French ships of Dumanoir's squadron - the 80-gun Formidable, and the 74-gun ships Scipion, Duguay-Trouin and the Mont-Blanc - had only suffered slight damage during the battle and managed to escape. The ships cleared Cape St Vincent on the 29th of October and entered the Bay of Biscay on the 2nd of November.

One of the British ships that were on the look out for French ships in the area was the 36-gun HMS Phoenix, under the command of Captain Thomas Baker. Baker had received information that Zacharie Allemand's Rochefort squadron had been sighted in the Bay of Biscay, and he sailed southwards to investigate. The Phoenix arrived just as Dumanoir was entering the bay.On sighting the four ships, Baker closed in presuming them to be part of the Rochefort squadron. Dumanoir's ships sighted the Phoenix and gave chase. Baker fled south with the plan to lure the French ships towards a British squadron commanded by Captain Sir Richard Strachan.

At 3pm Baker sighted four sails heading south. Dumanoir also saw the sails, and discontinued the chase, allowing Baker to keep the French sails under observation to   ascertain the strength and disposition of the French ships. Baker then resumed sailing towards the fours ships he assumed to be Strachan's squadron. The Phoenix fired guns and signaled to the four ships as she attempted to catch them. Two British frigates, the 38-gun HMS Boadicea and the 36-gun HMS Dryad, who had previously encountered and lost Dumanoir's squadron, sighted Phoenix and the four sails to the south at 8.45pm that evening, and signaled them. However, suspicious of the new sails, Baker continued sailing to the squadron in the south. On receiving no reply to their signals, the frigates drew away at 10.30pm and took no further part in the battle.

At around 11pm Baker reached Strachan's squadron. Strachan's squadron was badly scattered, and he initially set sail to intercept the French with the 80-gun Caesar, the 74-gun Hero, Courageux and the 32-gun frigate Aeolus. Baker was sent to round up the remaining ships and order them on to support him. Strachan chased the French, who were now sailing north west, until 1.30am when he lost them in hazy weather. Shortening sail he then waited for the rest of his squadron. At daylight on the 3rd of November he was joined by the 36-gun frigate Santa Margarita and the chase began again. The French ships were once again sighted at 9am, and at 11am the Phoenix, the 74-gun Namur and the 38-gun frigate HMS Révolutionnaire - who had stumbled across the chase - were sighted astern, catching up. By that evening, the Santa Margarita and the Phoenix had overtaken the main British force and were leading the chase. The 74-gun Bellona had not been able to rejoin the squadron and took no part in the battle.

 

 

At 5.45am on the 4th of November, the Santa Margarita approached the Scipion and opened fire. At 9.30am she was joined by the Phoenix. At this time Strachan's main squadron was still well behind the French ships, and the Namur and Révolutionnaire were still further astern. The British frigates were successful in slowing the French squadron by constantly harassing the Scipion allowing the British line to overhaul the French ships. By 11.45am Dumanoir realised action was unavoidable and ordered his ships to form line ahead on the starboard tack, with Strachan approaching from windward on the French ships' starboard side.

By noon, all four British frigates were in action attacking the Scipion on the portside and the Namur was close to rejoining the squadron who were firing on the Scipion's starboard side. Dumanoir had ordered his ships to tack in succession, to bring his leading ship, Duguay-Trouin into the action, but the Duguay-Trouin did not obey the signal until 12.15pm after a 45 minute delay. The French line turned towards the British, and the two lines passed alongside each other with Dumanoir hoping to isolate Namur before she could join the British line. However, Dumanoir found that Strachan had doubled his line, with frigates on one side and ships of the line on the other, and the French ships suffered heavy damage as the lines passed. This damage rendered Dumanoir's ships slow and unmanoeuverable, allowing Strachan to tack his line, keep his ships alongside the French, and successfully add the Namur to the line.

The heavy bombardment of the French line continued, and by 3.10pm the Scipion and the Formidable had struck their colours. At this point, the Mont Blanc and the Duguay-Trouin attempted to escape but were chased by the Hero and the Caesar and captured by 3.35pm.

 

by Robert Phillips, Canvey Island, September 2013
Strategema Games