Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Battle of Quiberon Bay: Maritime strategy and global power

The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the conflict that made Britain into a global maritime and economic power, culminated in a single battle off the west coast of France, a victory so complete that it defined success for decades to come. This conflict concluded a sequence of four major wars across the preceding seventy years (1688-1697, 1702-1713, and 1744-1748) in which Britain had blocked French attempts to dominate central Europe, while extending its global influence. The inconclusive nature of those wars prompted fresh thinking, based on hard-won experience.

Under the leadership of William Pitt the Elder, the driving force in government, and Adm Lord Anson, the first Lord of the Admiralty, who combined the roles of political and operational leader of the Royal Navy, a new strategy was developed to defeat France, a large state with powerful armies. Britain would use naval dominance and command of the sea to isolate and conquer the French overseas empire, and crush the French economy by blockade. By 1759, the French West Indian islands and Asian possessions had been seized, while Canada was effectively conquered with the loss of Quebec that summer. Unable to recover these colonies in the face of a dominant Royal Navy, the French regime decided to attempt an invasion of Britain, relying on surprise to avoid the British fleet. They recognised this would be a massive gamble.

By 1759, the Royal Navy was a battle-hardened force of aggressive admirals, skilled sailors, and well-maintained ships; it had swept the enemy from the seas, and imprisoned their skilled manpower. The French navy was a wasting asset, and France lacked the funds to rebuild it. Anson relied on his chosen fleet commanders Edward Hawke in the Atlantic and Edward Boscawen in the Mediterranean, to find and destroy the enemy fleets. The entire Navy suffused with a highly aggressive doctrine that emphasised the need to destroy the enemy. Anson had no doubt his admirals would win, ensuring the fleets at sea were supplied with fresh food, and regularly relieved for rest and overhaul.

Although the French fleet remained in harbour at Brest all summer, it suffered far more from disease than the British, epidemics of typhus and dysentery swept through the town, further reducing the scarce pool of naval manpower, while the British blockade cut off vital Baltic naval stores. Nor could France afford to keep the fleet and army waiting, the country was bankrupt, and the war in Europe was going as badly as the war in North America. To make matters worse, French invasion plans were predictable, their intentions were betrayed by the assembly of invasion shipping in northern French ports, and attempts to bring the French fleets based at Toulon up to Brest. The same plan had been used in the 1690s. Anson deployed his fleets and squadrons in a masterful pattern combining a fixed purpose with operational flexibility. His admirals would use their judgement within broad strategic directions. This confident, permissive leadership paid dividends. In early July, RAdm George Rodney began the counter-attack, bombarding invasion shipping which had assembled at Le Havre.

Edward Boscawen commanded the Mediterranean fleet watching Toulon, with orders to stop that fleet leaving the Mediterranean. In mid-August he intercepted the French off Gibraltar. When the French admiral sought sanctuary in neutral Portuguese waters off Lagos on 18 August 1759, Boscawen attacked, ignoring the feeble protests of Britain’s oldest ally. He left the diplomats to smooth ruffled feathers of the court in Lisbon. Subsequently, France’s Mediterranean Fleet ceased to exist.

Despite that defeat, the French pressed ahead with the invasion plan, more in desperation than hope. The fleet at Brest would have to escort the invasion shipping to Britain, if it could evade the Hawke’s tight blockade. French invasion shipping assembled in Quiberon Bay, just south of the Brittany Peninsula. The French fleet finally put to sea in mid-November, after a gale had driven Hawke’s force off station. Adm Conflans headed south to collect the transports, but was quickly located by Hawke’s cruisers. Early on 20th November 1759 Hawke sighted Conflans’ fleet, which turned and fled into the dangerous waters of Quiberon Bay, hoping the British would not dare follow. Hawke immediately ordered his fleet to chase without forming a line of battle. He was anxious to fight, and soon began to overhaul the enemy, confident the superior seamanship of his captains and the fighting prowess of his crews would prevail.

The intimate connection between progressive-inclusive political systems, economic dynamism, and command of the sea should be obvious, while the consistent success of progressive maritime powers in the major wars of the past three hundred years is equally clear.

By early afternoon, the leading British ships had caught the French rearguard. Four French battleships sacrificed themselves to save their admiral, one ship sinking as the sea flooded in through open gun ports, another, smashed by the overwhelming broadsides of Hawke’s 100-gun flagship, HMS Royal George, followed, and two more surrendered. As Conflans’ disordered fleet entered the bay, his line of battle deranged by shifting winds, he realised that not only were the British chasing his ships into these dangerous waters, but unless he took action, they would capture the entire fleet. He tried to reverse course and escape the bay before Hawke arrived, only to find HMS Royal George racing to engage his flagship, the Soleil Royale. As the two ships coursed towards one another, the French battleship interceded to protect Conflans who, unable to regain the open sea, was forced to anchor the Soleil Royale as darkness fell. Hawke had no choice but to do the same, anchoring amidst a nightmarish seascape of pounding waves, drowning sailors, wreckage, gunfire and jagged rocks.

During the night, eight French ships escaped to safety at Rochfort. Seven more anchored in the estuary of the river Villaine, before throwing their guns and stores overboard and hauling the ships into the shallow river, behind hastily created gun batteries. One of them was wrecked, the other six would be blockaded in the river until 1761 or 1762. The final French ship ran aground near the River Loire and sank with heavy loss of life. That night HMS Resolution was wrecked on the Four Shoal, where it was soon joined by the Soleil Royale, which tried to reach the protection of shore batteries, and HMS Essex which Hawke had sent to prevent an escape. All three ships joined the first casualty of the Shoal, the French battleship Heros. On the 22nd November 1759 the weather moderated, but Conflans made sure the pride of the French fleet, named for Louis XIV, the Sun King, was burnt. British casualties were remarkably light, unlike those of the French. Although many French ships survived, they would not put to sea as a fleet for the remaining years of the conflict. The credit, manpower and morale of the French Navy had been utterly broken at Lagos and Quiberon.

After the battle, French credit collapsed, loans dried up, and the state quickly became bankrupt. Britain had won the war without the need for an invasion of France. The Seven Years’ War, a limited maritime and economic conflict that emphasised British strengths, and minimised the obvious weaknesses of a small country, became the model for future wars. A new fleet flagship was ordered to celebrate this stunning battle, HMS Victory, which would be the iconic flagship at another crushing triumph 46 years later.

Quiberon demonstrated that success in naval warfare depended on superior maritime skills, as well as combat capabilities, a combination that has defined Royal Navy professionalism ever since that stormy day in Quiberon Bay when Britannia took charge of the maritime domain. It was also the coda to a brilliantly successful strategy, applied with political resolve, professional skill, and relentless aggression, demonstrating the astonishing power of maritime strategy, then and now, to defeat apparently powerful continental states.

The inclusive political system created in the 1690s allowed Britain to mobilise the capital and equipment it needed to fight for as many years as it took to win, while the autocratic unrepresentative French state struggled to fund two years of conflict. France’s failure to address the root causes of defeat in the Seven Years’ War by compromise and concession set the course for revolutionary change. This was not solely, or even primarily a question of force. The greatest weapon of seapower states like Britain in 1759, and today, has always been the ideology of progress and freedom.

The intimate connection between progressive-inclusive political systems, economic dynamism, and command of the sea should be obvious, while the consistent success of progressive maritime powers in the major wars of the past three hundred years is equally clear.

This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Forum on Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.

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