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 1796: The Battle of Cape St Vincent

Background

The lead up to the battle starts in 1796 with the Treaty of San IlDefonso which allied Spain and France against Britain. This alliance created difficulties for the British, as the newly combined fleets rendered the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy outgunned. In late January 1797 the Spanish were planning on sailing to Brest to form up with the French, and then sailing on to Cadiz to provide an escort for a merchant convoy.

On the 1st of February the Spanish fleet departed for Cadiz, but an easterly wind blew them further into the Atlantic than anticipated. Meanwhile, a British fleet under Admiral Jervis moved to intercept, which was supplemented on the 6th of February by five ships under Rear-Admiral William Parker.

An incredible feat of seamanship took place before the battle even occurred on the 13th of February. HMS Minerve, with Captain Nelson onboard sailed towards the British Fleet through the line of Spanish ships. He successfully performed this manoeuvre due to the thick fog which obscured his position to the enemy ships.

The battle is worth studying because it demonstrates how disobeying orders can  sometimes pay off. The British had 22 ships in their fleet, whilst the Spanish had 36 in total. It should be noted that both these fleets were a combination of Ships of the Line and other smaller craft, such as sloops and cutters.

 

The Battle

 

As the fog lifted at 9’oclock on the 14th of February a great opportunity was presented to the British. Six Spanish ships were separated  from the main Spanish force by almost three miles, therefore making themselves easy prey. Admiral Jervis drove the British fleet into one line, with the intention of separating the lines of communication between both the Spanish squadrons.

As the British advanced toward the separated squadron, the Spanish 112-gun Principe de Asurias tried to break the British line and reach the doomed force. This Spanish vessel met the British at the flagship, HMS Victory and after moments of desperate manoeuvring fell victim to a devastating British broadside. The Principe de Asurias was disabled and with much of her crew slaughtered she headed windward away from the fight.

The British had now formed a solid line separating the two halves of the Spanish fleet. Jervis ordered his leading ships windward, with HMS Culloden leading the thrust. After her came HMS Blenheim and then Prince George, the Orion and the Colossus. It was not long until they reached the small Spanish squadron, with the seas erupting into a smoke-filled melee. The Spanish ships may have had the advantage in men and firepower, but the well-trained British gunnery crews could fire three volleys for every two of the Spanish.

Naturally as the British force moved windwards, the group waiting to move grew smaller. This was seen by the Spanish Admiral, and he ordered a number of his ships to swing around and engage the almost stationary British group waiting to move. The Spanish flagship alongside San Josef and Salvador del Mundo moved towards the British. This cunning stroke by the Spanish was met by one equally as cunning by Nelson. HMS Captain (Nelson’s vessel) swung leeward out of the British line toward the advancing Spanish.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent. Nicholas Pocock (1797)

HMS Captain was the smallest 74-gun ship in the entire Royal Navy, and as the huge Spanish vessels passed her she broke into flame as her broadsides let loose. Nelson was now engaging a flagship of 130 guns, two ships of 112 guns and one of 80 guns on his own. The Spanish who were taken by surprise struggled to manoeuvre their behemoths into a suitable firing position around the small British ship, all whilst HMS Captain's well trained gunnery crew continued to pour broadsides into the Spanish. However, it was not long until HMS Captain had her entire top-deck left void of any life, she even had her steering column shot off. Nonetheless Nelson's tenacity had stopped the advance of the Spanish and had brought his comrades valuable time.

Shortly after HMS Captain was disabled, HMS Excellent moved towards the storm and poured three broadsides into the Spanish three-decker Salvador del Mundo, disabling her in the process. After this, Excellent passed between the Captain and San Nicolas, protecting Captain whilst delivering a devastating broadside against the Spanish ship. The protection granted by HMS Excellent allowed Nelson to perform an impressive feat despite being aboard a disabled vessel. He drifted toward the stern of San Nicolas and commenced a boarding, with Nelson himself climbing into the window of one of the officers cabins. The boarding proved to be a success.

 

Shortly after taking the swords of the Spanish officers the San Josef came alongside, unleashing a volley of musketry upon the deck of the fresh prize. Without hesitation Nelson and his force commenced to board the San Josef. There was no major fighting and the Spanish crew surrendered before the British even finished climbing the rigging.

By halting the Spanish advance and capturing two of the largest ships, Nelson had ensured a British victory.

A painting depicting Nelson's boarding operation. R. Holingford (1896)

Aftermath

Once figures had been collated, the true extent of the British victory became apparent. The Royal Navy lost less than 100 sailors whilst the Spanish lost what is thought to be around 1000. There were also the crews of the four prize ships captured from the Spanish, estimated to number around 3000.

This battle can also be seen as one of the steps to Nelson achieving his fame of which he is recognisable by today. Whilst there was initially little appreciation of Nelsons quick thinking and successive boarding’s of two Spanish ships, this was to change. Nelson wrote an article titled ‘A few remarks relative to Myself, in the Captain, in which My Pendant was flying on the Most Glorious Valentines Day, 1797’ which was published in the newspapers. Alongside this, Nelson gave Admiral Winthuysen’s sword (a battle trophy) to the Mayor of Norwich who in return granted Nelson the Freedom of The City.

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