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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

Pass the Straits and join Conflans


The

naval interest of this war is centered in the year 1759, when France, having lost Louisburg on account of England's control of the sea, decided to concentrate naval and military forces on an invasion of England. Before the plans for this projected thrust were completed, Quebec also had fallen to the British. The attempted invasion of 1759 is not so well known as that of Napoleon in 1805, but it furnished the pattern that Napoleon copied and had a better chance of success than his. In brief, a small squadron under the famous privateer Thurot was to threaten the Scotch and Irish coasts, acting as a diversion to draw off the British fleet. Meanwhile the squadron at Toulon was to dodge the British off that port, pass the Straits and join Conflans, who had the main French fleet at Brest. The united forces were then to cover the crossing of the troops in transports and flatboats to the English coast.

This plan was smashed by Admiral Hawke in one of the most daring feats in British naval annals. Thurot got away but did not divert any of the main force guarding the Channel. The Toulon fleet also eluded the English for a time but went to pieces outside the Straits largely on account of mismanagement on the part of its commander. The remnants were either captured or driven to shelter in neutral ports by the English squadron under Boscawen. On November 9, a heavy gale and the necessities of the fleet compelled Hawke to lift his blockade of Brest and take

shelter in Torbay, after leaving four frigates to watch the port. On the 14th, Conflans, discovering that his enemy was gone, came out, with the absurd idea of covering the transportation of the French army before Hawke should appear again. That very day Hawke returned to renew the blockade, and learning that Conflans had been seen heading southeast, decided rightly that the French admiral was bound for Quiberon Bay to make an easy capture of a small British squadron there under Duff before beginning the transportation of the invading army.

For five days pursuer and pursued drifted in calms. On the 19th a stiff westerly gale enabled Hawke to overtake Conflans, who was obliged to shorten sail for fear of arriving at his destination in the darkness. The morning of the 20th found the fleets in sight of each other but scattered. All the forenoon the rival admirals made efforts to gather their units for battle. A frigate leading the British pursuit fired signal guns to warn Duff of the enemy's presence, and the latter, cutting his cables, was barely able to get out in time to escape the French fleet and join Hawke. Conflans then decided that the English were too strong for him, and abandoning his idea of offering battle, signaled a general retreat and led the way into Quiberon Bay.

Hawke instantly ordered pursuit. The importance of this signal can be realized only by taking into account the tremendous gale blowing and the exceedingly dangerous character of the approach to Quiberon Bay, lined as it was with sunken rocks. Hawke had little knowledge of the channels but he reasoned that where a French ship could go an English one could follow, and the perils of the entry could not outweigh in his mind the importance of crushing the navy of France then and there. The small British superiority of numbers which Conflans feared was greatly aggravated by the conditions of his flight. The slower ships in his rear were crushed by the British in superior force and the English coming alongside the French on their lee side were able to use their heaviest batteries while the French, heeled over by the gale, had to keep their lowest tier of ports closed for fear of being sunk. One of their ships tried the experiment of opening this broadside and promptly foundered.


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