Royal Navy

Admiral Lord George Rodney, First Baron Rodney 1719-1792

Rodney's Formidable breaking the French lines at Les Saintes, 1782
Rodney's Formidable breaking the French lines at Les Saintes, 1782

'He never let slip an opportunity to bring opponents to action, or being himself in the thickest of the fight' John Knox Laughton on Admiral Rodney

George Rodney was one of the leading British admirals in the eighteenth century and during a long and illustrious career achieved considerable success against the French and Spanish in the Seven Years War and the American War of Independence.

In 1732 Rodney first went to sea with the Channel Fleet. Promoted to Lieutenant five years later, he was posted to the West Indies and Mediterranean, where in 1742 he temporarily commanded the sixty-gun ship Plymouth escorting a convoy of 300 vessels back to England. Two years after becoming Post Captain in 1743 aged 24, Rodney took command of the sixty-gun Eagle and fought with distinction at Admiral Hawke's victory over de L'Entenduère's French fleet in 1747 when six of eight enemy ships were captured.

Appointed Commodore and Commander-in-Chief of the Newfoundland Station between 1749-1752, Rodney then returned to England and was elected to Parliament. During the Seven Years War, 1756-1763, Rodney played an important role in several operations against the French. He accompanied Admiral Hawke's Rochefort expedition of 1757 and commanded a ship-of the-line in Admiral Boscowen's fleet during capture of Louisberg and Cape Breton Island.

After capture of Quebec and fall of Canada in 1759, Rodney was promoted Rear Admiral and appointed to command a squadron for a attack on the French port of Havre de Grace where a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats was being prepared for the invasion of England. The operation began 4 July and lasted for fifty hours destroying many boats and the town's arsenal. Admiral Hawke finally extinguished any French hopes of an invasion at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 21 November.

Re-elected to Parliament in 1761, Rodney sailed on 21 October as Commander-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands Station in the West Indies. His orders were to capture the island of Martinique with troops from New York under Major General Monckton. The combined force reached Martinique on 7 January 1762 and forced the French to surrender on 16 February. Shortly afterwards Grenada, Santa Lucia and St Vincent also fell into British hands. The fall of Havana in August 1762 marked the end of Rodney's war. Almost fifteen years elapsed before hostilities were resumed.

On 1 October 1779 Rodney was again appointed to command the Barbados and Leeward Islands Squadron beginning the most celebrated period of his career. He left Plymouth on 29 December 1779 with twenty ships-of-the-line, his first objective being to relieve Gibraltar. In a great piece of good fortune on 8 January 1780 his fleet sighted a twenty-two strong Spanish convoy, including seven warships of the Caracas Company. All were captured and the merchant ships became a British convoy to supply the Gibraltar garrison.

Only eight days later eleven Spanish ships-of the-line were spotted off Cape St Vincent and Rodney ordered general chase. In a pursuit of the Spanish as brilliant as Admiral Hawke's pursuit of Conflans at Quiberon Bay in 1759 the enemy was routed in the 'Moonlight Battle' which lasted until 2am. Using audacious tactics two French ships were wrecked on shoals, one blew up and further four were captured including the flagship of Admiral Langara. Rodney regarded this battle as his greatest triumph.

Further success beckoned when Rodney engaged Comte de Guichen's fleet of twenty-two ships off Martinque on 17 April 1780. Unfortunately, Rodney had not had time to instill his offensive spirit into the fleet and the action became an indecisive skirmish highlighting shortcomings in the fleet's Fighting Instructions.

Rodney continued his campaign against the French for two years, culminating in the overwhelming victory over Admiral de Grasse at the Battle of Les Saintes on 12 April 1782. Taking advantage of a shift in the wind, Rodney's fleet broke through the French line twice, although historians have argued who was responsible for initiating this brilliant tactic. His fleet demonstrated better discipline and superior manoeuvring than against de Guichen. Combined with another engagement on 18 April, Rodney captured seven ships-of-the-line and a sloop, saved Jamaica from invasion and shattered French naval strength in the West Indies. However, his deputy Admiral Hood later argued that an even greater victory might have been won.

Out of twenty-one ships-of-the-line destroyed or captured by the Royal Navy in the American War of Independence, 1778-1783, Rodney accounted for fifteen of them and during his career also accepted the surrender of four admirals. In 1781 he became Vice-Admiral of Great Britain on the death of Admiral Hawke, the navy's highest professional honour. Rodney lived in retirement until his death in May 1792 aged 73.

Further reading:

  • K. Breen, "Rodney: Les Saintes, 1782" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994). A. Lambert, War at Sea in the Age of Sail (London: 2000). J.K. Laughton, (ed), From Howard to Nelson: Twelve Sailors (London: 1899). A.T. Mahan, Types of Naval Officers drawn from the History of the British Navy (London: 1904).