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The Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759

The Battle of Quiberon Bay
The Battle of Quiberon Bay

One of the finest victories in the annals of the Royal Navy was won in Quiberon Bay on France's Biscay coast near St Nazaire on a stormy November day in 1759, the 'wonderful year' of victories, immortalised in the song 'Hearts of Oak' composed to commemorate the battle.

France had been at war with Britain since 1756. After three years her position in Canada, India and the West Indies was on the point of collapse and in Europe she faced stalemate against Prussia which received British support. To solve all their problems at a single stroke, the French planned to land an army of 20,000 men in Scotland to be covered by a fleet of twenty-one ships of the line under Admiral Conflans.

Admiral Edward Hawke had been leading his Western Squadron in blockading the French for much of the year, the British crews acquiring magnificent seamanship skills in the process. He also ordered his Captains to engage the enemy at short range. A November gale, however, caused Hawke's fleet to take refuge in Torbay and this allowed Conflans to sail from his base at Brest with his fleet of twenty-one ships. This was reported to Hawke who sailed in pursuit through the continuing bad weather catching the enemy at Quiberon Bay where the French planned to embark their army.

Hawke had twenty-three major ships and the outnumbered Conflans decided to take refuge in the bay thinking the British would not dare follow him onto a lee shore. He was wrong. On 21 November Hawke chased the French into the bay under full sail and the leading group of British ships commanded by Lord Howe raced forward to engage the rearmost French. The British had better trained gunners and came off the best in the confusion that resulted until Hawke was forced to order his fleet to anchor late in the afternoon.

One French ship was so badly damaged by the gunfire of Hawke's flagship the Royal George that it sank in the rough seas. Another, hard pressed by a British ship was caught by the wind and rolled over, water flooding through the gunports causing her to sink rapidly. Two others struck their colours although only one, the flagship of the French rear admiral, could be captured. Six French ships took refuge in the River Viliane, in whose shallows they were trapped and a seventh grounded and was wrecked trying to get in. A further eight fled south to Rochefort and another was wrecked as it tried to enter the River Loire. The French flagship and the uncaptured ship that had struck its colours went aground the following morning and were burnt. Two British ships ran aground and were wrecked, but it was a small price to pay for the destruction of the Brest fleet and the end to the threat of a French invasion.

Further reading:

  • R. Mackay, "Hawke: Quiberon Bay, 1759" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994).