Battle of the Saintes

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Sat 29 Jan 2011 20:27
Battle of the Saintes




The Battle of the Saintes: surrender of the Ville de Paris by Thomas Whitcombe, painted 1783, shows Hood's Barfleur, centre, attacking the French flagship Ville de Paris, right.


The Battle of the Saintes (known to the French as the Battle of Dominica) took place over four days, from the 9th to the 12th of April 1782, during the American War of Independence, and was a victory of a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney over a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse forcing the French and Spanish to abandon a planned invasion of Jamaica. The battle is named after the Saintes (or Saints), a group of islands between Guadeloupe and Dominica in the West Indies. The French fleet defeated here by the Royal Navy was the same French fleet that had blockaded the British Army during the Siege of Yorktown. The battle is sometimes credited with pioneering the tactic of "breaking the line"; this is however erroneous as Danish admiral Niels Juel did this in the Battle of Køge Bay more than a hundred years earlier.



Battle of the Saintes - A Diorama by Patrick Chevailler (1982)


Origins: On the 7th of April 1782, the Comte de Grasse set out from Martinique with thirty five ships of the line, including two fifty-gun ships and a large convoy of more than a hundred cargo ships, to meet with a Spanish fleet consisting of twelve ships of the line and fifteen thousand troops for the purpose of capturing the British island of Jamaica. He was pursued by Rodney with thirty six ships of the line. On the 9th of April 1782, De Grasse sent his convoy into Guadeloupe, escorted by his two fifty-gunships. There was an initial inconclusive clash during which the French got the better of the van division of the British fleet which had become separated from the centre and rear divisions. Two French ships of the line were damaged.

Battle: On the 12th of April, De Grasse bore up with his fleet to protect a dismasted ship (Zélé, seventy four guns) that was being chased by four British ships as he made for Guadeloupe. Rodney recalled his chasing ships and made the signal for line of battle. As the French line passed down the British line, a sudden shift of wind let Rodney's flagship Formidable and several other ships, including the Duke and the Bedford, break through the French line, raking the ships as they did so. The resultant confusion in the French line and the severe damage to several of the French ships including De Grasse's flagship Ville de Paris, of one hundred and four guns, led eventually to De Grasse’s surrender and the retreat of many of his ships in disorder. This action split the French battle line into two. A general chase ensued. In all, four French ships were captured and one, César, blew up after she was taken.




A 1785 engraving of de Grasse surrendering to Rodney

The British lost two hundred and forty three killed and eight hundred and sixteen wounded, (two captains out of thirty six were killed). The French losses and wounded has never been stated, but of captains alone, six were killed out of thirty. It is estimated that the French loss may have been as much as two thousand. More than five thousand French soldiers and sailors were captured. The large number shows what a considerable force the French were willing to put ashore with the invasion of Jamaica. Of the Ville de Paris' crew, over four hundred had been killed and more than seven hundred were wounded. When the César blew up, she killed over four hundred French and fifty British sailors when her magazine exploded.

The hull of a first rank vessel could be up to three feet thick, made of solid oak - or two thousand oak trees

Aftermath: The battle frustrated French and Spanish hopes of capturing Jamaica from the British. Rodney was created a peer with £2,000 a year settled on the title in perpetuity for this victory. Hood was elevated to the peerage as well. The battle has caused controversy ever since, for three reasons:

Rodney’s failure to follow up the victory by a pursuit was much criticised. Rear-Admiral Hood said that the twenty French ships would have been captured had the commander-in-chief maintained the chase. On the 17th of April, Hood was sent in pursuit of the enemy. He promptly captured two sixty-four-gun ships of the line and two smaller warships in the Battle of the Mona Passage on the 19th of April. One hundred and twenty years later, the Navy Records Society published the Dispatches and Letters Relating to the Blockading of Brest. In the introduction they include a small biography of Admiral William Cornwallis who commanded the Canada at the Saintes. A poem purportedly written by him includes the lines:


Had a chief worthy Britain commanded our fleet,
Twenty-five good French ships had been laid at our feet.


The battle is famous for the innovative tactic of "breaking the line", in which the British ships passed though a gap in the French line, engaging the enemy from leeward and throwing them into disorder. But there is considerable controversy about whether the tactic was intentional, and, if so, who was responsible for the idea (Rodney, his Captain-of-the-Fleet Sir Charles Douglas, or John Clerk of Eldin).

On the French side, de Grasse blamed his subordinates, Vaudreuil and Bougainville, for his defeat.



Order of Battle:- Admiral Sir George Rodney's fleet. The name of the British ship - followed by the Captains Name:

VAN. HMS Royal Oak – Capt Thomas Burnett, HMS Alfred – Capt William Bayne, HMS Montagu – Capt George Bowen, HMS Yarmouth – Capt Anthony Parrey, HMS Valiant – Capt Samuel Granston Goodall, HMS Barfleur – Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood and Capt John Knight (Flagship of Van), HMS Monarch – Capt Francis Reynolds, HMS Warrior – Capt Sir James Wallace, HMS Belliqueux – Capt Andrew Sutherland, HMS Centaur – Capt John Nicholas-Inglefield, HMS Magnificent – Capt Robert Linzee and HMS Prince William – Capt George Wilkinson. 

CENTRE:  HMS Bedford – Commodore Edmund Affleck and Capt Thomas Graves, HMS Ajax – Capt Nicholas Charrington, HMS Repulse – Capt Thomas Dumaresq, HMS Canada – Capt William Cornwallis, HMS St Albans – Capt Charles Inglis, HMS Namur – Capt Robert Fanshawe, HMS Formidable – Admiral George Rodney, Capt Charles Douglas and 2nd Capt Charles Symons, HMS Duke – Capt Alan Gardner,  HMS Agamamnon – Capt Benjamin Caldwell, HMS Resolution – Capt Lord Robert Manners, HMS Prothee – Capt Charles Buckner, HMS Hercules – Capt Henry Savage and HMS America – Capt Samuel Thompson

REAR: HMS Russell – Capt James Saumarez, HMS Fame – Capt Robert Barbor, HMS Anson – Capt William Blair, HMS Torbay – Capt John Lewis Gigoin, HMS Prince George – Capt James Williams, HMS Princessa – Rear-Admiral Francis Samuel Drake and Capt Charles Knatchbull (Flagship of Rear), HMS Conqueror – Capt George Balfour, HMS Nonsuch – Capt William Truscott, HMS Alcide – Capt Charles Thompson, HMS Arrogant – Capt Samuel Pitchford Cornish and HMS Marlborough – Capt Taylor Penny.


The Cesar is seen here sinking. In fact she sank at about ten pm following a fire started in the afternoon by the English crew who were drinking to celebrate their victory. The fire started near a barrel of rum and soon reached the powder holds, thus causing a massive explosion "It's better like this, the English won't have it" said the injured Captain M de Manguy, refusing to be evacuated..

French Ships: Ardent (Captured), Auguste – Capt Louis Antoine de Bourgainville, Bourgogne, Brave, Cesar (Captured but burnt), Citoven, Conquerant, Couronne – Capt Claude Mithon de Genouilly, Dauphin Royal, Destin, Diademe, Duc de Bourgogne, Eveille, Glorieux (Captured), Hector (Captured), Hercule, Languedoc, Magnanime, Magnifique, Marsailles, Neptune, Northumberland, Palmier, Pluton, Reflechi, Richemond, Sceptre, Scipion, Souverain, Triomphant – Capt Louis-Philippe de Vaudreuil and Ville de Paris – Comtet Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse (Captured).



HMS Formidable - A ninety-cannon Ship of the Line. Ordered in November 1767, She was laid down in Chatham Dockyard (I spent many years in Chatham, going to school there - so Formidable is a personal favourite) on the 17th of August 1768 and launched on the 20th of August 1768. Formidable was the flagship of Admiral Rodney at the Battle of the Saintes. After a long career she was dismantled in 1813.