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Battle Hercule vs Mars, 21st March 1798

Historical Background

During the French Revolutionary Wars the Royal Navy practiced a close blockade strategy. To prevent the French fleet from breaking out into the Atlantic Ocean a fleet was maintained off Brest whenever weather conditions permitted.

At 11:00 on the 21st April as the British fleet was crossing the Iroise Passage two sails were spotted to the east. The three most easterly ships were detached to investigate the sails: the 74-gun ships of the line HMS Mars, HMS Ramillies and the 38-gun frigate HMS Jason.

At 14:00 a third sail was sighted, sailing close to the shore to the southeast. This new sail was much larger than those sighted earlier, and the squadron turned towards the new ship, the 74-gun Hercule on her maiden voyage. During the chase HMS Ramillies lost her fore topmast and dropped back. Captain Alexander Hood made every effort to accelerate the sailing of the Mars and soon gained on the leading ship the Jason and the Hercule.

Captain L'Héritier of the Hercule realised that in open water the he would be caught and overwhelmed, and sought instead to escape through the channel of the Raz de Sein. As the Hercule neared the channel, the Mars overtook the Jason, captain Hood put her on a starboard tack and bore down on the Hercule. At 20:30, finding herself unable to sail against the strong current, the Hercule dropped anchor at the mouth of the channel, swung her broadside about to face the enemy and furled her sails.

Captain Hood attempted to manoeuvre the Mars into an effective position to attack the Hercule, but the current in the Raz de Sein passage prevented this and instead he decided to bring the Mars directly alongside and fight broadside to broadside.

At 21:25, after an initial heavy exchange, with the Mars fighting the current she pulled slightly ahead of the Hercule and dropped anchor. The port bow anchor of the Mars became entangled with the starboard anchor of the Hercule causing the British ship to swing violently and collide with the Hercule.

Thus entangled and with sides rubbing together, both captains ordered their ships to pour fire into the other. The situation was such that many cannons on both ships could not be run out, and instead had to be fired from inside the ships. During the exchange, captain Hood was fatally wounded by a musket shot to the thigh.

The Hercule twice failed to board the Mars sustaining heavy casualties on each attempt. Captain L'Héritier himself was injured twice leading the assault. At 22:30, after an hour of continual bombardment L'Héritier surrendered. The hull of the Hercule was torn open and also the Jason was fast approaching.

by Robert Phillips, Canvey Island, September 2013
Strategema Games

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