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Droits de l'Homme vs. Indefatigable and Amazon, 13th January 1797

Historical Background

The Expédition d'Irlande, was a failed attempt by a French expeditionary force to invade Ireland in early 1797. On the 13th of January, the 74-gun Droits de l'Homme, commanded by Commodore Jean-Baptiste Raymond de Lacrosse was returning to France after recognising that the weather was too violent for a landing to be made, and acknowledging the failure of the operation. 

The 44-gun frigate Indefatigable under Sir Edward Pellew and the 36-gun frigate Amazon under Captain Robert Carthew Reynolds were on their way back to Brest after being refitted and resupplied in Falmouth. At 1.00pm on the 13th of January, the British ships were approaching the island of Ushant and sighted a larger ship through the fog. This ship was the Droits de l'Homme.

Although his ship was much larger than the British frigates, Lacrosse had earlier spotted sails to the West which he believed to be British and was concerned that he was outnumbered. Also the weather was worsening and Lacrosse was concerned by the rocky lee shoreline. The Droits de l'Homme was over-laden carrying over 1,300 men, 700–800 of them soldiers who should have landed in Ireland. Also the ship was already damaged from its winter voyage and Lacrosse did not want to place his ship or the soldiers at risk in an inconsequential naval action..

To avoid action, Lacrosse turned southeast, hoping to outrun his opponents in the strong winds. However, Pellew managed to manoeuvre the Indefatigable to cut the Droits de l'Homme off. The weather continued to worsen making steering and aiming extremely difficult. At 4.15pm, two of Droits de l'Homme's topmasts broke in the strong winds which allowed Pellew to close with the French ship.

The Indefatigable was heavily outclassed by her much larger opponent, and the Amazon was still at distance closing as fast as she could. However, Pellew recognised the Droits de l'Homme would not be able to open her lower gunports because of the heavy sea. Due to an unusual design, the Droits de l'Homme lower gunports were actually 14 inches lower than was normal which prevented any gunnery at all from the lower deck during the battle, effectively halving the ship's firepower. The earlier loss of the topmasts also reduced the stability of the French ship causing her to roll severely making aiming even more difficult.

At 5.30pm, Pellew closed with the stern of the Droits de l'Homme and raked her. The Droits de l'Homme turned to meet the Indefatigable, opening fire from the upper gun deck. Pellew then attempted overtake the Droits de l'Homme and rake her bow. In response, Lacrosse attempting to ram the Indefatigable. Neither ship was successful in their attempt. TheDroits de l'Homme fired at the British ship but caused minimal damage as most of her shot scattered into the ocean.

At 6.45pm the Amazon arrived and joined the action. She approached the French ship and closed to within pistol shot before raking the Droits de l'Homme. Lacrosse manoeuvred to avoid avoiding becoming trapped in a crossfire with both British ships to his westward side. At 7.30pm both the Amazon and the Indefatigable pulled away to make hasty repairs. By 8.30pm both frigates returned, repeatedly crossing in front of the Droits de l'Homme's bow, raking her. All attempts made by the Droits de l'Homme to ram the British ships were unsuccessful and as the ship was rolling severely she only managed to inflict minimal damage as reliable aiming was almost impossible.

By 10.30pm, the Droits de l'Homme was in severe trouble, she had lost her mizzenmast and had heavy casualties among her crew and passengers. Pellew and Reynolds closed on the stern quarters of the French ship, keeping up a high rate of fire. The Droits de l'Homme exhausted her available 4,000 cannon balls and had to resort to using shells against the British ships. Due to the high winds, these were even less effective. The battle continued through the night, with the British ships remaining outside the almost immobilised Droits de l'Homme's fire arc and able to manoeurve to make repairs as required. At 4:20am, land was sighted 2 nautical miles to leeward by Lieutenant George Bell of the Indefatigable.

Pellew immediately ordered the Indefatigable to turn seawards to escape the shore and signaled Reynolds to do the same. Both ships were damaged but they were able to make the turn, the Amazon to the north and the Indefatigable to the south. Pellew managed to work his ship out of danger against the wind. However, due to her northwards turn, the Amazon had less room to manoeuvre and she ran aground at 5am on the 14th of January. Unable to bring her off land, Reynolds ordered his men to abandon ship at 8am.

During the attempt to turn the Droits de l'Homme southwards, her foremast and bowsprit collapsed making the ship virtually unmanageable. Lacrosse ordered anchors to be lowered but the effort was unsuccessful, as earlier attempts to hold position in Bantry Bay had caused the loss of all but two anchors, and one of the remaining anchor's cables had snapped. At 7am, the Droits de l'Homme struck a sandbank which broke off the remaining mast and caused the ship to heel over onto her side.

by Robert Phillips, Canvey Island, September 2013
Strategema Games

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