Sea History 132 - Autumn 2010

Page 27

line, rhe French admiral realized rhar ir was rime to rurn and fi ghr. Jusr before 1 o'clock, D estouches's Aeer wo re aro und onro rhe srarboard rack, rurning 180 degrees ro sail srraigh r ar rhe oncoming English and a lirde to leeward so as "to give his shi ps a berrer chance ro use rheir lower barreries in rhe heavy sea rhen ru nning." Now rhe rwo fleers were converging qui ckly. Ir was roo !are for Arburhnor roger rhe leeward posirion, so he decided insread ro keep his fleer on irs current heading and pass rhe French to windward, each ship firing broadsides as rhey moved down rhe line. Bur before he could make rhar signal, Cosby in Robust reacred ro D esrouches's maneuver on his own acco rd. H e rurned to imercepr Conquerant, rhe lead ship of rhe French line, as she passed to leeward, wearing aro und so rhar Robust and Conquerant we re borh on srarboard rack, sailing side by side. ''Ar one o'clock," Berrhier wrore, "rhe lead ship of rhe French came wirhin range of rhe lead ship of rhe English, and several momems larer borh sides opened fire." The maneuvering was over, and rhe banle had begun.

Fleet Action When Cosby wo re Robust aro und ro engage Conquerant, Arburhnor was fo rced to orde r rhe res r of rhe fleer to fo llow sui r, "which obliged me to form un der rhe fire of rh e enemy's line." As rhe rwo sevenryfo urs hammered away ar one ano rher, Desrouches's ships fell off, away from rhe wind. Arburhnor's order fo r his fleer to wear ship was nor only unexpecred by rhe Brirish caprains bur had to be done under rhe barrage of rhe French broadsides, and ''rhe va n was by rhis means soo n pur imo co nfusion .... " This gave rhe nexr ships in rhe French line, rhe sixry-fours Jason and Ardent, rhe chance ro rake Brirish ships as rhey passed. Arburhnor aboard Royal Oak charged down imo rhe fray and took a rerri fic bearing for ir. The French flagship D ue de Bourgogne, aided by Ardentand Neptune, concentrared her fi re on rhe Brirish flagship as she ranged alo ngside. The fo resail aboard Royal Oak "was so to rn wirh shor rhar ir hung to rhe ya rd by fo ur clorhs and rhe earrings only.... " The flagship's rigging was shredded, and rhe "maintopsail halliards, braces, ries, also rhe


1his 18 09 painting by Robert Pollard ofa Revolutionary war-era 9 0-gun ship of the line with its three rows ofheavy guns gives a sense ofthe power ofthese big men-of war. 1he wide work platforms halfway up the mast were know as "tops" and served as stations far sharpshooters in battle. Nineties were designed as flagships, with two elaborate great cabins aft, one far the captain and one far the admiral. In the Battle of the Capes, H MS London was the largest ship in the fleet: 1,894 tons and carrying 98 guns.

fo retopsail and fore braces and bowlines" were all shor away so rhar for a brief period rhe ship was adrift and our of control. Wirh Royal Oak momentarily knocked our, Desrouches's flagship and rwo ochers, likely Ardent and Neptune, charged ahead to engage rhe rhree lead ships of rhe Brirish line, rhe Europe, Prudent, and Robust. Europe and Prudent had al ready raken a severe bearing from rhe lead French shi ps as rhey passed and were drifring our of co nrrol while rheir offi cers and men srruggled to son our rhe damage and ger rheir shipsunderway again. That left Robust, and rhe Due de Bourgogne and her consorts ran up alongside rhe sevenry-fo ur and poured fire imo her. "[N]othing can exceed rhe gallant behaviour of Captain Cosby and his ship's company in general," Arbuthnor wrore, bur gallantry was nor enough agai nst heavy broadsides. Royal Oak, now once agai n under control, came ro Robust's aide, drawing off rhe French, but nor before the

French gunners had "emirely cut up his masts, sails, and rigging.. .. " Robust d rifted our of the line, turning back to rhe pass ing French ships and receiving in her vulnerabl e stern "the fi re from the French vanguard and, in addirion, rwo broadsides from Neptune, which passed within pistol range." For nearly an hour rhe rwo fl eers kepr up their running barde, sailing with the wind astern, the lead ships nearly side by side as they exchanged broadsides. The air was filled wirh choking gray smoke that swirled away in rhe growing wind. Flashes of gunfire puncruated the smoke and haze, and the Aar, heavy, nearly continuous roar of the huge guns, 18-, 24-, and 32-pounders, blanketed the ships and the sea. Sails jerked and fl apped like wo unded men as rhey were torn by flying meral. Thick lines and heavy blocks crashed to rhe decks below. Round shot smashed gaping holes though oak planks and frames and sent showers of deadly splinters th ro ugh the cl ose-packed men on deck.