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A new day for His Majesty 's admirals (II)

By December 1781, as all England was agonizing over the Navy's sorry performance at Chesapeake Bay and the subsequent surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Rodney prepared to return to the West Indies, and went aboard the Formidable, a 90-gun ship of the line. But westerly gales delayed his journey and he went ashore to wait the storm out at Cawsand Bay. The son of port Commissioner Paul Ourry later remembered when the admiral and the commissioner propped their gouty feet before the fire and he overheard Rodney declare, "Damme, Paul, if I get near that rascal de Grasse, break his line."

In February of 1782 Rodney was back in the West Indies. His second in-command was Sir Samuel Hood, who had helped to lose the Battle of Chesapeake Bay. The winner of that battle, Comte de Grasse, had also returned to the West Indies. Rodney and de Grasse finally met in April of 1782, off the island of Dominica.

De Grasse had 33 ships of the line to Rodney's 36. But the French Navy's orders were to avoid pitched battles whenever possible, and under these circumstances de Grasse was convoying an assault force to attack England's most important West Indies possession, Jamaica. Rodney had guessed de Grasse's target; when he had been warned that he should keep protective squadrons near Barbados, St. Lucia and Antigua he had answered, "Oh damn these islands! Jamaica is of ten times more consequence than all of them put together."

De Grasse turned north. Rodney followed. For four days he chased his quarry along the westward shores of Martinique and Dominica. At this point de Grasse became the victim of bad fortune. It first took the form of a series of misadventures by the hard-luck French 74-gunner Zélé. On the night of April 10, after two days of Chase, the Zélé collided with the 64-gunner Jason. Both were too damaged to keep up with the rest of the French fleet. The Jason was sent off to port for repairs, while the Zélé's crew tried to make their repairs at sea. The next morning Rodney spotted the crippled Zélé and sent a few ships to take her. De Grasse countered by coming back to cover her. On the night of the 11th the Zélé collided with another French ship, the Ville de Paris, and put herself entirely out of action. De Grasse was forced to abandon her; he now had 31 ships, and Rodney, with his 36, was almost upon him.

Moreover, de Grasse found himself in a trap. His northward progress was blocked by a group of islets known as the Saints, between Dominica and Guadeloupe. He considered ducking through the passage between the two Islands, but the wind was blowing through the channel from the east. His only open route lay to the south. He would have to double back on his pursuers. But at least—as at Ushant—it would be a passing engagement with the fleets on opposite tacks. They would sail past each other at a combined speed of four to five knots even in the dying breezes. The British gunners would be unable to concentrate on the French hulls, while the French could still cut up the British rigging; it took much pounding to damage stout oaken hulls, but one good broadside of flying chain and bar could slice through great areas of shrouds and braces. De Grasse turned south. And Rodney turned to meet him as he came past.

At first it looked like every other Royal Navy battle for the past century. In an unswerving line ahead, Rodney's fleet moved alongside the French fleet as it filed past. His gunners aimed at the French hulls as de Grasse's gunners sent chain and bar shot slashing through the British rigging; the topmasts of nearly every ship crackled and twisted as the flying shot cut them away.

But now de Grasse became the victim of foul luck from which there was no escape. The wind shifted. It hauled from east to southeast and hit de Grasse's line at the center. The French ships at the center and rear, already close-hauled, had to fall off slightly to keep their wind. Others were taken aback and stalled. Gaping holes appeared in the French line.

Had John Clerk been aboard Rodney's flagship, he would have cheered. Here was the perfect example he had hypothesized in so many diagrams and in so many tabletop maneuvers with his pocket models. The enemy line was open and waiting to be cut.

At this point, Rodney may or may not have suffered an attack of indecision. Only one record survives to tell what transpired on the Formidable' s quarter-deck during the next few minutes. Many years later, Sir Charles Dashwood, who had been a midshipman aboard Rodney's flagship, recounted a vivid scene. As he related it, Fleet Captain Sir Charles Douglas had climbed onto the hammock nettings at the forward rail of the quarter-deck to study the ships ahead, and saw the gaps in the French line. One gap was directly ahead. Climbing down, he asked Midshipman Dashwood, "Dash, where's Sir George?" Dashwood had just replied that the admiral was in his cabin when Rodney came on deck.

      

Rodney's flagship Formidable (flying the white flag, center background) smashes through the French line at the Battle of the Saints on April 12, 1782.
The admiral's revolutionary maneuver set the French to rout and ushered in a new era of naval tactics. But on another level, the great victory was something of a disappointment: because Rodney managed to capture a mere five ships, his reward for the stunning victory amounted to only £ 5,016 in prize money.

 

Doffing his hat, Douglas approached Rodney and urged, "Break the line, Sir George. The day is your own, and I will insure you the victory." "No," said Rodney, "I will not break my line."

The two men paced the quarter-deck in opposite directions, turning and coming back toward each other. Douglas tried once more. "Only break the line, Sir George, and the day is your own."

This time Rodney replied with grudging permission. "Well, well, do as you like," he said, and went into his cabin.

Douglas immediately ordered the helm to port. The Formidable swung across the line of battle and moved through the French line, ail guns firing as she went. In the bail of cannon balls from the British flagship the French warship Glorieux lost ail her masts at once.

The Formidable flew no signal for breaking the enemy's line because there was none in her flag locker. And Rodney must have watched anx­iously at his stern windows. Whether or not he had been talked into it, he had made a radical decision. The question was whether his fleet, still under "Line Ahead," would break precedent and follow his lead.

Within minutes Commodore Edmund Affleck in the 74-gun Bedford went through another opening, splitting it so that the entire British rear could follow the Bedford through. Captain Alan Gardner of the Duke had in fact preceded Rodney through the line by accident: the wind shift had pushed the French ship opposite him across the Duke's bow. In horror at the thought of being cut off, Gardner looked to the flagship, which was next astern of him, and with vast relief watched the Formidable turn through the line. The Duke swung over and followed her.

Unlike his compatriot at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay, Rodney imme­diately hauled down his "Line Ahead" signal, keeping aloft the one for close action. Rounding up on the unprepared Frenchmen on their other side, the British ships isolated and surrounded small contingents of the disordered French line, concentrating four ships against three and in some cases three against one.

The French ship Ardent, carrying most of the siege artillery for the attack on jamaica, struck her colors after a few exchanges of fire. Most of the French decks were crowded with soldiers for the Jamaica assault; they were mowed down by British shot. So many bodies were dumped over the French sides that the sea quickly became tinged with red, and schools of sharks moved in among the ships.

The dismasted Glorieux was taken in tow by a French frigate. British men-of-war moved in on them. On the Formidable's quarter-deck, Fleet Captain Douglas, watching the pursuit, was reminded of Homer. As Rodney came back on deck, sucking a lemon, Douglas called to him: "Behold, Sir George, the Greeks and the Trojans contending for the body of Patroclus." Rodney snarled, "Damn the Greeks and damn the Trojans! I have other things to think about."

The 61-year-old admiral, exhausted by the tension of battle, ordered an armchair brought onto the quarter-deck and sank into it. Tossing aside his lemon, he asked a nearby midshipman to make him a lemon­ade. The midshipman went below and returned with the lemonade, stirring it with the only utensil he could find, a dirty knife. Rodney looked at the knife and said, "Child, that may do very well for the midshipmen's berth but not for an admiral; drink it yourself and go and call my steward to me."

The Formidable had gone through the French line at about 9 a.m. The swirling battle went on, with a pause during a flat midday calm, into the late afternoon. By then five of the French ships had struck their colors. The Glorieux was cut away from her tow by the British pursuers. The prize of the battle was the 104-gun French flagship, the Ville de Paris, on which half-a-dozen British ships concentrated their fire. As her hull splintered and her rigging disintegrated under the storm of shot, the French flagship's gun crews fought back until ail their cartridges were gone and they had to ladle the powder into the gun barrels. By late afternoon, her rudder knocked out and her cannon balls used up, the Ville de Paris rolled helplessly in the sea as Hood's Barfleur came down and sent a last flaming broadside into her. On the Ville de Paris' s quarterdeck a tall figure stood by himself. Admiral de Grasse finally hauled down his flagship's colors. As he did, Rodney brought the Formidable alongside the Barfleur, and officers from both British ships were rowed to the French flagship to climb her side and accept de Grasse's surrender.

On the Formidable's quarter-deck Rodney turned to Douglas and said, "Now, my friend, I am at the service of your Greeks and Romans, for the enemy is in confusion and our victory is secure."

To "that rascal de Grasse" Rodney was generous and courteous. The French admiral was given the run of Rodney's cabins, and professed himself in love with the Misses Rodney as soon as the portraits of Rodney's four daughters were restored to the admiral's cabin from the wine room, where they had been stored during the battle. During the pleasant, peaceful days following the battle, de Grasse strolled the Formidable's quarter-deck, watching the sailors catch a shark and chatting with Fleet Captain Douglas; despite his stay in Paris, Rodney's French was limited, but Douglas was a French scholar. The French admiral confided that he had had to leave his private fortune, amounting to £5,000, in a chest aboard the Ville de Paris, and was concerned that the chest might be looted by his sailors. Rodney sent some British sailors over to the Ville de Paris; they returned with de Grasse's chest and a few others as well.

For weeks after the Battie of the Saints, and for more than a century since, controversy kas persisted. Sir Samuel Hood argued that Rodney should have followed up his victory by pursuing the remainder of the French fleet. Rodney, however, had not slept for four nights. Darkness was falling swiftly, as it does in the tropics, and there would be no moon. The ships were not far from the shoals and reefs of the islands. The French had done their usual damage to the British rigging. Rodney had had enough, and he did not want to risk losing one of his ships—or any of the prizes he had captured. By next morning, when Hood came aboard the Formidable to urge a chase, the surviving ships of the French fleet were already below the horizon. "Come, now," said Rodney, "we have done very handsomely as it is."

With understandable satisfaction Rodney dispatched a fast frigate to London with the message: "It has pleased God, out of his Divine Providence, to grant to His Majesty's arms a most complete victory."

Englishmen reacted to Rodney's news with pent-up hysteria. It was the Royal Navy's most decisive victory since the naval engagements of the Seven Years' War. Rodney was rewarded with a peerage and an income of £2,000 a year; Hood was also given a peerage, and two more of Rodney's captains were knighted.

At the Battle of the Saints, Rodney had launched a new day in naval warfare. Since the Seven Years' War, British admirals had fought the enemy in the line-ahead formation, and had never won so decisive a victory—until Rodney cut through the enemy's line off Dominica.

His victory was compounded of other elements besides the new tac-tics. A major contributor was Rodney's fleet captain, Sir Charles Douglas. Historians have questioned Midshipman Dashwood's recollection that it was Douglas who talked Rodney into adopting Clerk's tactics, but Clerk later claimed that he had personally demonstrated his maneuvers to Douglas in London before the Battle of the Saints. Douglas deserves much of the credit for other reasons. He was a brilliant innovator, who markedly improved the British rate of fire. Douglas substituted flannel for silk as a powder cartridge; flannel was more flammable than silk and thus left no smoldering remnants in the breech of the cannon, which in turn meant the elimination of the worming in order to extricate the still burning cartridge fragments. Another Douglas innovation was to moisten the wads between powder and bail, also reducing the possibility of their igniting and the need for the worm.

        

Called "the smasher" by the British—and the "devil gun" by the French, who were its targets—the stubby carronade was designed for close quarters and in its biggest models fired an immense 68-pound bail propelled by five and a halfpounds of powder. Introduced in 1779, it played a major role in the Battle of the Saints; the French did not devise anything equaling its powers of destruction until 1799.

Yet a third Douglas improvement was a perforated goose quill filled with powder; it could be thrust into the cannon touchhole much more quickly and efficiently than the old method of pouring a portion from a powder horn. Hundreds of these goose quills were ready for instant use in the Battle of the Saints.

Among the most important of Douglas' contributions was one that materially increased the rate of fire. He devised a system of lead springs and weights that worked to absorb the recoil of the cannon and made their return to firing position much easier and quicker. But the greatest Douglas invention was an intricate block-and-tackle arrangement that enabled a crew to aim a gun with greater accuracy and flexibility. Besides the wedges that had lifted or lowered the muzzle, Douglas' tackle permitted a wider arc when training the gun. Douglas' reforms enabled gun crews to aim, as much as 45 degrees in either direction; when approaching an enemy, they could get in as many as three spots before the enemy was in position to reply—and when departing, they could deliver an equal sting after the enemy had been forced to cease fire. At the Battle of the Saints the gunners of de Grasse's flagship, the Ville de Paris, were dumfounded by the concentrated fire they were receiving.

The British had yet another surprise for the French. On his last visit to England, Rodney had been introduced to a devastating new weapon. It was a large, short-barreled gun called the carronade because of its origin at Scotland's Carron Iron Works. Mounted on a track that provided more friction than the wheels of a ship's gun, thus reducing the recoil, the wide-muzzled carronade could fire a monster 68-pound bail with a five and-a-half-pound powder cartridge. The carronade was useless at long range but murderous close up. And because the island of Dominica prevented the French line from falling away, most of the Battle of the Saints was fought at close range. When the Formidable went through de Grasse's line, Rodney's carronades accomplished more damage and slaughter than a dozen big guns could have caused at a distance. Of the five French skips that were captured, three were the victims of carron­ades blasting into their stems.

With the aid of these technological, strategical and tactical advances, Sir Charles Douglas, Lord Rodney and John Clerk had formed an unlikely triumvirate to alter the tactics of fighting sail forever.

Rodney praised Douglas but did not mention Clerk in his report on the Battle of the Saints. But on his return to London he acknowledged his debt to the amateur admiral of Edinburgh by contributing to an edition of Clerk's book a series of salty, self-revealing footnotes, among them: "The naval instructions want a thorough reformation; but 'tis not in the power of every commander-in-chief to make what additions he pleases." And, "There will ever be a manifest advantage in obliging your enemy to depart from their original intention, and attacking them in a different mode from that they offer you."

In a word: surprise. Splitting the enemy's line and doing the unexpected would be the tactic adopted by a new generation of fighting admirals who were only now stepping onto the quarter-decks of the Royal Navy. And it was just in time, because the Royal Navy's greatest challenge of all was about to arise.