The Battle of Algeciras Bay & The Gut of Gibraltar, July 1801

During the French Revolutionary War (1793 to 1802) Battle Honours were awarded for two separate actions fought within a week (on 6th and 12/13th July, 1801) off Gibraltar, between a British squadron of six ships-of-the-line plus two smaller ships, and a squadron of French and Spanish ships-of-the-line. Both battles will be discussed here, and many persistent myths and rumours will be cleared up, so that the history of both is presented as accurately as can be done.

 

Battle of Algeciras Bay

 

In June of 1801, Admiral James Saumarez, famous for his capture of a French frigate back in 1793, was cruising off the part of Cadiz with a small squadron, blockading the Spanish within the harbour. On the 5th of July, Admiral Saumarez received word from a lugger that three French warships had attempted to proceed through the Straits of Gibraltar from the Mediterranean, but had been deterred from doing so by the presence of Saumarez's fleet.

 

The French fleet, under the command of Rear-Admiral Charles-Alexandre Léon Durand Linois, retreated back to Algeciras, across from Gibraltar itself. Saumarez determined to attack these three ships, and lifted the blockade of Gibraltar, leaving only the 74 gun HMS Superb behind (as she was too far off to see Saumarez's signals) to watch Cadiz.

 

Saumarez readied his 80 gun flagship Caesar for battle, as well as the 74 gunners Audacious, Pompee, Spencer, Venerable, and Hannibal. The three French warships were moored very close to the Spanish shore, and were protected by the forts at Isla Verda, Fort Santa Garcia, and Fort San Iago. The latter was positioned at the town to the north, the two former were to the south of the fleet.

 

The French warships were the 80 gunners Formidable, and Indomptable, and the 74 gun Desaix.

 

The Battle

 

In very light winds, the Pompee, Caesar, Audacious and Venerable all anchored from north to south in that order, and engaged the French warships, with the Hannibal firing in between the gap between the first two, Pompee and Caesar, and Spencer took position to fire in between the gap between the Caesar and Audacious. Firing commenced around nine o'clock in the morning of July 6th, 1801.

 

After an hour, the French ships slackened their fire to try and warp themselves in closer to the shore, but in doing so, the Formidable, the French flagship, turned her stern to the enemy, and was raked several times by the Pompee.

 

The Pompee was about to receive it back just as hard however, and her anchor cables were soon afterward cut by enemy fire, and she started to drift away, into an exposed position where she too was raked in turn by the French ships. Pompee had to be towed back across the bay to Gibraltar, out of the fight.

 

Saumarez ordered his ships to cut their own cables, in order to bring themselves closer to the enemy. The Hannibal, in so doing, attempted to place herself between the shore and the Formidable, but hadn't realized the distance to shore was much closer than originally thought, and she soon grounded right under the guns of San Iago, and was raked by the Formidable.

 

Suffering seventy-five killed and seventy wounded, Hannibal's Captain, Solomon Ferris, was finally forced to strike and surrender. The other British vessels endeavoured to come to her aid, but the wind would not cooperate, and pushed them further and further south and east, away from the battle.

 

Sensing the futility of trying to rescue his comrades (but not before certainly doing everything he could try), Admiral Saumarez ordered the retreat at 1:35. The odds were simply too great against the British, and Saumarez had no choice but to withdraw his battered ships.

 

Aftermath

 

The Caesar suffered nine killed, twenty-five wounded, and eight captured (the latter had attempted to go to the Hannibal's assistance).

 

Pompee suffered fifteen killed, sixty-nine wounded.

 

Spencer had six killed, and twenty-seven wounded.

 

Venerable had nine killed, and twenty-six wounded, and eight missing.

 

Audacious could count eight killed, thirty-two wounded.

 

Total losses for the British was 123 killed, 242 wounded, and twenty-two missing.

 

The French, by their own admission, lost 306 killed, and close to 500 wounded. The Spanish received eleven killed in the forts. The Allies had gained a ship, the Hannibal, as well as her entire surviving crew as prisoners of war.

 

The Call for Assistance

 

Admiral Linois knew that he would never leave Algeciras without support however, and wrote an urgent letter to the Spanish authorities at Cadiz, sending it overland to the port, requesting a fleet to come and get him and escort him into Cadiz. His casualties had been very heavy, and he had no desire to repeat the battle that had just occurred.

 

When word reached Admiral Mazzaredo in Cadiz, he ordered Admiral Don Juan Joaquin Moreno to make sail with five Spanish warships and one French ship and proceed to Gibraltar at once to pull Linois out of there. Accordingly, Moreno set out with the powerful 112 gunners Real Carlos and San Hermenegildo, the 94 gun San Fernando, the 80 gun Argonauta, and the 74 gun San Agustin.

 

The French ship that set out carried Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley, the French representative in Cadiz, and was the 74 gun St. Antoine (recently a Spanish ship, the San Antonio, that was handed over to France for the operation, and manned by a French crew).

 

This formidable fleet chased the sole blockading ship, Superb, off her station, and pursued her through the Straits of Gibraltar.

 

On HMS Superb, Captain Richard Goodwin Keats, crowded on all sail to stay ahead of the Spaniards, and pulled into Gibraltar on the 9th of July, three days after the battle.

 

The Spanish fleet sailed in shortly after that, anchoring off Algeciras to protect the three shattered French warships, whose crews were working under all possible speed to get them ready for sea again. Saumarez, not to be daunted, was pushing his own crews hard to ready their own ships for sea, as he was determined to not let this big Allied fleet escape unmolested. Little did he know, that despite the odds facing him, he would go on to win one of the most crushing victories ever inflicted by a British fleet upon a superior enemy.

 

The Battle of Algeciras Bay had turned into an embarrassing British defeat.

 

The Gut of Gibraltar

 

With crews on both sides working fast to repair their vessels, it seemed as if Admiral James Saumarez might in fact get the rematch he had desired. The Pompee was too badly damaged to repair, but Saumarez had the addition of HMS Superb now, and only through the greatest exertions on the part of the Caesar's crew was the flagship ready to sail again.

 

On the morning of July 12th, 1801, the Allied fleet slowly made its way out of Algeciras harbour, and around Cabrita Point. The British fleet was made ready, and followed them out at 2:30 PM, as the Allied fleet wasn't able to clear Cabrita Point until a little past one.

 

It appeared that a night action was very likely, and it was the type of battle Saumarez sought, for he wished to take down what ships of the Allied fleet he could before they reached Cadiz. The prisoners from the Hannibal had been paroled and sent back to England, so Saumarez was down to five out of the original seven ships had could muster.

 

The Allied fleet consisted of nine vessels, nearly double what Saumarez had. The Allies waited for the Hannibal to join them, but the captured ship was too badly damaged, and close to 8 PM, the Allied fleet sailed off without her.

 

The wind was from the east, pushing both fleets toward the Straits of Gibraltar. By morning, the Allies would be back at Cadiz. Saumarez arranged his ships in line of battle ahead, and started following after the Allies.

 

Admirals Linois and Moreno shifted their flag to the frigate Sabina, and arranged their fleet in a box like formation. The three damaged French ships from the previous battle were out in front, in line abreast, these being the: Formidable (80), Indomptable (80), and the Desaix (74).

 

The three medium Spanish warships followed them, being the: San Fernando (94), Argonauta (80), and San Agustin (74). Bringing up the rear were the heaviest Spanish warships, consisting of the: Real Carlos (112), San Hermenegildo (112), and the French manned St. Antoine (74).

 

Thus it was that Admiral Saumarez's fleet would have to pass through the most powerful of the Spanish warships if they were to attack the weaker French ships in the van.

 

Saumarez's fleet consisted of the following: HMS Caesar 80 guns  HMS Venerable 74 guns  HMS Superb 74 guns  HMS Spencer 74 guns  HMS Audacious 74 guns

 

The Battle Begins

 

At 8:40 PM, Admiral Saumarez hailed the Superb, which was astern of his flagship, and told Captain Keats to make sail and attack the enemy ship that was closest to the shore, though the Allied fleet was no longer in sight, thanks to the damaged ships in the British fleet slowing Saumarez down. Superb was the only one that hadn't suffered damage, and Saumarez gave her orders to do what damage she could in the hopes of the rest of the British fleet being able to catch up.

 

Keats moved ahead, passing the Caesar, and started to follow the Allied fleet in the dark. By 10 PM, the wind was fresh, and the Allied fleet was once again in sight. The Caesar and Venerable were the only two British ships in view to Keats, and by 11 PM the latter had disappeared.

 

By 11:20 PM, the Superb hove in sight of the rightmost Spanish vessel, the 112 gun Real Carlos. The San Hermenegildo was to her left, and the St. Antoine to that ship's left. Keats shortened sail, and ranged up alongside the Real Carlos in the dark, opening fire when he was 300 to 350 yards off. Superb quickly toppled the Spanish ship's fore topmast, and set her on fire by the third broadside.

 

The big Spanish ship began to fire back, but in the midst of this, several of Superb's shots sailed over the Real Carlos, and hit the San Hermenegildo.

 

Captain Emparran, of the latter vessel, assumed an enemy ship had come in between his ship and the Real Carlos, and was firing on him, so naturally, he ordered the fire to be returned, not realizing he was in fact opening fire on his compatriot vessel.

 

When Captain Esquerra of the Real Carlos suddenly found himself under attack from two directions, he naturally assumed enemies were firing on him from his left and right, when in reality it was just an enemy on the right, and an ally on the left mistakenly firing on him. His vessel then compounded the unfortunate blunder by opening fire to the left and right, and upon observing this, the Superb ceased its fire, and began to drop down to the south, behind the two duelling Spanish behemoths.

 

By 11:50, Superb stood alongside the St. Antoine and brought her to battle. The Real Carlos and San Hermenegildo had the tragic misfortune of fighting each other to the death. They both closed distance between themselves, never realizing their mistake. They became entangled with each other when Real Carlos's rudder was shot away, and she drifted into the Hermenegildo, setting that ship on fire as well.

 

At 12:15 AM, July 13th, the Real Carlos blew up, and fifteen minutes later, the San Hermenegildo, ablaze from stem to stern, suffered the same fate.

 

The destruction of these two Spanish warships killed almost 2,000 men outright, leaving only 299 who were plucked from the sea. Both captains Esquerra and Emparran were killed.

 

This was certainly one of Spain's most tragic chapters in naval history, and should never be forgotten or obscured. Too often has this battle been misrepresented, or become the victim of false facts. The truth lies in the accounts of the officers who fought the battle themselves, and should not be taken out of context.

 

Captain Keats most certainly did not steer the Superb in between the Real Carlos and San Hermenegildo as is often reported. That is a baseless myth that was started by an author decades after the actual battle. Keats's achievement is no less stunning given the real facts.

 

St. Antoine was overwhelmed by the Superb, and struck her colours after a half of hour of being engaged, and soon found herself in the midst of the British fleet, which came up fast from astern. 

We have to assume, from the Superb's casualties of only fifteen men wounded, that her French opponent had targeted her masts, and shot high, as was customary, leaving the British ship's hull relatively untouched.

 

So far, the battle had gone remarkably well. Captain Keats, through a lucky shot, had accomplished the complete destruction of the Allied rear echelon, causing two massive Spanish three deckers to blow themselves up, and capturing a third French vessel.

 

The six remaining Allied warships (three of them damaged from the previous battle), continued to run through the Straits of Gibraltar, chased by Saumarez and his squadron.

 

The Second Phase: Formidable Strikes Back

 

By dawn, strong winds had scattered the British squadron, and only Caesar, Venerable, and Spencer were visible to each other, the latter far astern, and the middle one far ahead.

 

The French ship Formidable could be seen, and the Venerable proceeded to chase after her, the British ship soon catching up due to the French vessel's battered state.

 

Action was joined at 5:15 in the morning of July 13th, and Venerable lost her mizzen topmast by 5:30, and by 6:45 it was clear the French ship was getting the better of the engagement when she managed to topple the British warship's mainmast.

 

At this point, Formidable began to slowly sail off, firing her stern chasers at the now slower British ship as she did so.

 

At 7:50 the foremast went over the side, and the Venerable was pushed by the strong winds and grounded on the rocky shoals off San-Pedro. This freed the Formidable to continue on unmolested into Cadiz, joining the survivors of the Allied fleet.

 

The Venerable, having suffered eighteen killed and eighty-seven wounded, was taken off the rocks with the greatest of exertions, and saved, though not before losing her mizzenmast as well.

 

This effectively concluded the Battle of the Gut of Gibraltar, a rather stunning British success. By attempting to save three allied vessels, the Spanish ended up losing two of their own to accident as well as a French manned ship to the British.

 

Hardly worth the effort it seemed. The incredible thing about this battle is the surreal circumstances that unfolded, circumstances that cost the lives of so many sailors. Abandoned by their own countrymen as they sailed on, the Spanish sailors were left to burn and die that terrible night of July 12, 1801.

 

It was a battle that should be accurately reported, and never forgotten.

 

 

The most part of this information was obtained from this site  http://webpages.shepherd.edu/CBRAMA01/other_battles/algeciras.html