AAR Après la tempête, Action of 20 march 1798, off Diamond Point

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The small British squadron, consisting of HMS Victory, HMS Superb and HMS Indefatigable, led by Admiral Croft, had been blown off station by hard weather, but the squadron had had time to prepare with hatch covers secured and top-gallant masts taken down on deck well before the high winds struck. As the winds had lessened considerately, the squadron, almost untouched, returned to their station against the wind, tack upon tack, with their masts restored.

Admiral Croft's dinners were unusually late by the service's standards, lavish but informal affairs. He had a warm, hearty laugh that he used often. His wife Sophie, who often accompanied him at sea, his flag-captain John Russel, the two invited captains Edward Foster and Frederick Wentworth together with all the officers and the chaplain of HMS Victory, sitting at the big table in her great cabin, were fully satisfied after a great dinner. The admiral's port was very good but had gotten stuck on its rounds at the chaplain, Mr Collins. When the first lieutenant had asked if Mr Collins knew the Bishop of Norwich the answer had been "Yes, I do!" followed by a long anecdote that was desperately needing a point, about the Right Reverend Manners-Sutton, his wife Mary and any important people connected to him. He was interrupted by a "Yes, yes, he's a terribly good chap, but he always forgets to pass the port." from the admiral, causing amusement. With the answer from Mr Collins it escalated to a roar of laughter drowning his hesitant reply "I'm not sure, but I can't say that he does. He has a great memory and..."
The laughter was dying down when the admiral was told by an interrupting steward:
"There's signal from the Indefatigable, sir. Sails on the horizon."

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The dinner ended abruptly when the officers stood up, more than one a little unsteady from not only the port but also two cases of excellent wine, and followed their Admiral from the table. Coming on deck they noted that the clouds were breaking up. They all gathered on the quarterdeck, in their full dress uniforms, trim gleaming reddish gold in the last rays of the setting sun, studying the distant royals in their telescopes. After a few quick orders the captains returned to their ships and the squadron set a course closer to the harbour to intercept any ship trying to run the blockade. The sighted squadron's intentions must have been to try to use the dark of the night to slip in, but had been a few minutes early and had been betrayed by the quickly clearing weather. The night was free of any wisps of clouds with stars shining bright and the moon close to full. As the sighted squadron came hull up they were determined to be French even though not carrying colours. The evening's light winds soon died down completely and the two squadrons were becalmed during most of the night. Early on some attempts to tow the ships by boats were made by the French, but there appeared to be a lack of boats and it was abandoned.

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With the dawn came a breeze off the coast filling the sails. Even from a distance in the morning sun, signs of damage from the storm could be noted. Even the French flagship had a temporarily rigged main top-gallant mast. They had been hit much worse than the British.

The two squadrons headed for each other, the thought of slipping quietly into the harbour apparently completely gone from the French admiral. HMS Victory had the signal for "Form line of battle" flying. Admiral Croft stood tall on the quarterdeck in his undress uniform with his telescope under his left arm. His wife Sophie appeared on deck and queried him about the enemy ships.
"My dear, It is a well matched force." he said contently, raising his telescope to study them "There's an Ocèan-class first rate followed by two Téméraire-class third rates and a frigate. I would say that the first rate is Ocèan and the next ship... No, that's a tonnant-class eighty gun ship. The Téméraire should be Révolution. I think I recognize her and those two named are supposed to be in those waters."
"But that is not well matched! They have a ship of the line more than us." she protested.
"That may be, but we have the best seamen in the world. Our courage and gunnery far exceeds that of the French." he said turning to her, but after a thoughtful pause he added "You'd better go below. There's going to be some hard fighting today." She left him with a kiss on the cheek and a "Take care dear and don't send Frederick into trouble."
"Oh! He can manage that all by himself." the Admiral thought to himself, smiling.

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Standing on his quarterdeck Captain Frederick Wentworth studied the approaching French ships in his telescope. Their manoeuvres confused him.
"What the devil are they up to!" he exclaimed.
"Sir! Our line is turning into the wind in succession." came from the midshipman Mr Martin.
"Mr. Weston! Let us fall a little to the leeward before turning, to compensate for us being faster." the captain ordered the master, adding "and make sure to keep us out of range of that fort, if you please."
"The Victory is close-hauled at full sails, sir." Mr. Martin continued.

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"That French line is in total disarray. Their captains must all be new." Wentworth muttered to himself. But suddenly the line ordered itself and the frigate broke off. "And sudddenly a line appeared from nowhere. What were they doing? Now they have a better formed line than us. If Superb could just keep a steady course."
"I believe it's due to her newly coppered bottom, sir." the first lieutenant Mr. Dashwood suggested.
"I don't care for using us in the line." Wentworth carried on. "I don't care for it at all. We should be harassing the enemy with raking broadsides, as I'm sure that frigate will do, or face other frigates. We have no place in a line of battle."

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As the two first rate flagships aligned to greet each other with the first broadsides of the engagement Wentworth watched them from the back of the winding short line. The French flagship spewed out flames and smoke hiding her hull completely. The smoke drifted closer hiding any effect of the Victory's broadside. Victory herself had her decks covered as the smoke from her own guns drifted over her and off to leeward. As Ocèan came into view he stared in disbelief. She looked untouched.

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Ocèan bore away to steer clear of the island and a signal was hoisted. It must have told the squadron to turn and attack as that was what they did. All but the French flagship fired at the British flagship HMS Victory, the French frigate raking her.

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Wentworth watched the French ships come closer. The enemy flagship was still turning, directing it's bow at him, running before the wind. He could see the men gathering on the forecastle. "Is he going to try to board me?" Wentworth thought.
"Stand to your guns!" he roared. "Wait for it!"

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Ahead of him he registered heavy broadsides from Victory and Superb raking the approaching French ships and saw the main topmast and the entire foremast go by the board of Révolution from the first rate's heavy broadside. As the Ocèan pointed her bowsprit straight at him Wentworth yelled "Fire!". The Indefatigable's broadside roared in a unison bang that shook the ship. The thick smoke enveloping the ship was a familiar and comforting smell but now it was in his mouth and throat too. He roared "Reload!" at the top of his lungs and felt his throat growing coarse. As the smoke drifted past he first caught a glimpse of Rèvolution showing blood running red from the scuppers and the colours coming down. She had struck. Then Ocèan appeared still heading for Indefatigable, still turning with her. Wentworth could see the gaping holes in the huge bow that was less than half a cable away, closing fast. He saw dead and wounded and perhaps more of an orange light than her firing guns could explain. Was she on fire? It was hard to tell in the smoke of her own guns.

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"Helm to larboard, if you please, Mr. Weston" Wentworth commanded and as the ship turned, the wind shifting to running, Indefatigable slowly increased speed. Ocean still closed but more slowly and French marines started firing at the exposed crew of Indefatigable, her decks being well below the French first rate's forecastle. The long Tonnant-class ship fired her foremost guns at Indefatigable, one after the other. Apart from some holes in the top sails a few shots struck the side doing little damage. The fire was answered by the well trained British gunners firing a rolling broadside after just over a minute. It had been an exceptionally quick reload of the heavy 24 pounder guns.

A few men perched on the bowsprit of the first rate ready to board as it came closer and closer reaching over the poop deck, nearly entangling in the rigging. More men followed behind them.
"Boarders aft!" Wentworth roared just as a bullet struck his hat off his head. Drawing his sword he met the French boarders dropping from the bowsprit overhead and attacking forward. A French sailor closed, attacking by swinging a boarder's ax. Wentworth parried and sidestepped the heavy strike, stepped close and put his hessian boot in the attackers groin and thrust him away. A shot rang out over his shoulder killing the man and a group of scarlet coats passed him charging aft. Even though becalmed by the first rate's huge sails, Indefatigable still outran her. As the gap widened between the ships the French boarders realized there would be no reinforcements and heavily outnumbered they threw down their weapons in surrender

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Wentworth turned his attention to the surrounding battle. The Tonnant-class 80 gun ship now identified as Formidable had followed Superb and as Superb tacked and Indefatigable fell off Formidable now ran between the two British ships in a perfect position to rake them both in their vulnerable sterns. He could see the captain angrily shouting orders while all guns were being reloaded. He turned to the master and told him to keep turning.
"I would like you to wear ship, Mr Weston. We do not want to present our vulnerable stern to Formidable when her guns are loaded." he said trying to keep calm as the rush of the fighting died away.
"She follows us, sir" came the bright voice of midshipman Mr. Martin still staring at the huge first rate ship looming abaft.
"I thought as much. Mr Dashwood, Larboard broadside may fire as they bare."
On the starboard beam Wentworth saw HMS Victory deliver a bow rake to the unfortunate frigate Comète, but he could not see any details.

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"Mr. Weston, It would be unfortunate if the Ocèan managed to board us. I suggest we fall off a little to widen the radius." Wentworth told the master.
"Aye aye, sir" he replied, turning to the helmsman he ordered "Two points to starboard!"
The Victory lay on an almost parallel course turning to engage Ocèan. Wentwort felt relief, as he knew he was in over his head in fighting a first rate, but with a little help it could be done. He was careful not to show any feelings though. Unsettling the crew would not do. A Captain is always in command of his feelings as well as his ship.

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Ocèan fell off the wind again turning toward Indefatigable showing her full broadside to Victory, but the guns were silent as the decimated crew was busy fighting fires once more started by damage. Wentworth saw his own guns run out. With the larboard broadside ready he ordered:
"Hard larboard!"
Indefatigable turned as quickly as a well handled 32 gun frigate. That was part of why he loved his ship so much.
The broadside hit Ocèan's bow hard, raking her once more. When the smoke had cleared Wentworth saw that the big French first rate had had enough and the colours were coming down. Abaft he could see Victory bearing up and firing away joined by Superb near the island, probably at the frigate somewhere on the far side of Ocèan.

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Wentworth shifted his attention to the fort overlooking the entry to the harbour, studying it in his telescope. He could see gunners ready by their big guns, at least 32 pounders. He thought of the effect heated shot could have on ships, how a doused shot could still start a fire minutes after the crew thought it safe. The didn't like the though and roared "Prepare to tack ship!" to the crew.

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The bosun's pipe sounded its call. The ship bore up and turned through the wind without loosing her headway. She caught the wind and quickly gained speed. This was one of the many things that made Wentworth dearly love his ship and another was how close to the wind she could sail and how very little leeway she had. On the larboard bow Superb came speeding down wind to cut off Comète from the harbour entrance. Her and the Victory had prepared for boarding but as they closed, their combined broadsides shot off all three of the frigate's masts hardly leaving any visible stumps or men alive above deck. She was completely helpless and made no signs of hostility.

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Looking abaft he could see Victory tacking as to follow him, but she had stern way and would have to fall far off to gain speed again before close hauling. Though a good sailer for her size she was still a first rate. He calculated that Indefatigable could go to the windward of the surrendered Comète, laying there a completely dis-masted hulk even her bowsprit shot off, and on close to the island in time to stop Formidable from slipping into the harbour under the protection of the fort.

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Indefatigable flew forward close hauled even though only carrying topsails, top-gallants and the main royal. To leeward Superb showed that she too was a great sailer, the heeling showing her shining new copper. Formidable came to meet, them heading for Indefatigable. Wentworth told his first lieutenant "Mr. Dashwood, prepare a boarding party from the starboard guns. There may come some hard fighting."

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"Brace!" Wentworth roared with his voice failing, taking hold of a main back stay. The Superb turned sharp through the wind, bringing her guns to bare. The heavy guns of the two third rates and the heavy frigate spoke out almost simultaneously, their rumbling completely drowning the sound of the muskets. The French colours slowly twirled down into the sea between the two third rates, shot from the mast. A stunned silence, following the thunderous noise, was broken by a groaning as Formidable's and Indefatigable's hulls touched and they grinded to a stop, both ship's bowsprits caught in the other ship's rigging. There was a great anticipation as the boarders started climbing up the side of the higher third rate. First lieutenant Dashwood stormed over the railing only to find the French lowering their weapons and many saying "Je me rends". They had never made any attempt to raise new colours.

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