Name:  1280px-Regulus_stranded_in_the_mud_in_front_of_Fouras_under_attack_by_British_ships_August_1809.jpg
Views: 107
Size:  129.7 KB

Also known as the Battle of Aix Roads (French: Bataille de l'île d'Aix, also Affaire des brûlots, rarely Bataille de la rade des Basques), was a major naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars, fought in the narrow Basque Roads at the mouth of the Charente River on the Biscay coast of France. The battle, which lasted from 11–24 April 1809, was unusual in that it pitted a hastily-assembled squadron of small and unorthodox British Royal Navy warships against the main strength of the French Atlantic Fleet, the circumstances dictated by the cramped, shallow coastal waters in which the battle was fought. The battle is also notorious for its controversial political aftermath in both Britain and France.

In February 1809 the French Atlantic Fleet, blockaded in Brest on the Breton coast by the British Channel Fleet, attempted to break out into the Atlantic and reinforce the garrison of Martinique. Sighted and chased by British blockade squadrons, the French were unable to escape the Bay of Biscay and eventually anchored in the Basque Roads, near the naval base of Rochefort. There they were kept under observation during March by the British fleet under the dour Admiral Lord Gambier. The Admiralty, desiring an attack on the French fleet, ordered Lord Cochrane, an outspoken and popular junior captain, to lead an attack, over the objections of a number of senior officers. Cochrane organised an inshore squadron of fireships and bomb vessels, including a converted frigate, and personally led this force into Basque Roads on the evening of 11 April.


Cochrane's plan.


As the 18 fireships prepared in Britain by Mulgrave had not yet departed by the time of Cochrane's arrival with the fleet, the captain responded by converting his own over the following week. A number of chasse-marées carrying tar and resin perfect for this role had been captured by the blockade, and Cochrane requisitioned eight military transport ships from the fleet reserve for conversion using these materials. The frigate-storeship HMS Mediator was taken over to be the centrepiece of the attack force. These vessels were laden with explosives and combustible materials such as rum-soaked hay, and crewed by volunteers from the fleet.] On three of the vessels Cochrane had loaded 1,500 barrels of gunpowder, topped by hundreds of artillery shells and thousands of grenades to create an explosion ship, a floating bomb of his own design intended to detonate right in the middle of the French line. During this process an attack by French boats on the fireships was driven off, with two British sailors killed and one wounded, and on 5 April Cochrane reconnoitered the approaches to Aix Roads, firing shots at the forts and fleet to gauge their responses. He subsequently wrote to Mulgrave suggesting that with an expeditionary force of 20,000 he could seize the defences overlooking the anchorage, sink blockships in the channel and thereby permanently deprive the French of one of their most important naval bases, although his letter was ignored.

On 6 April the bomb vessel HMS Aetna, equipped with a heavy mortar, arrived with William Congreve, inventor of a rocket artillery system which was to be used in the attack. It was followed by the first convoy of 12 fireships on 10 April, taking Cochrane's total to 24 fireships and explosion vessels to expend in his attack. With these ships was a transport carrying thousands of Congreve rockets, which were strapped to the masts and yards of the fireships to fire in all directions as the ships burned. Due to Gambier's failure to scout the channel, Cochrane was apparently unaware of the existence of the boom, although historian James Henderson suggests he knew of it but failed to inform Gambier lest the cautious admiral abandon the entire operation. Cochrane was intending that his force, led by the heavy Mediator and the explosion vessels, would enter the anchorage during the night and sow confusion among the French fleet. It was hoped that in the chaos some of the French ships might be destroyed by fire and others driven on shore where a concerted attack by the British fleet would destroy or capture the remainder. Allemand could see the fireships under preparation in Basque Roads, and increased his defences by stationing 73 small boats along the boom to tow fireships onto the mud flats and away from the French fleet. He also ordered all the ships of the line to remove their sails and topmasts. This rendered them largely immobile but considerably less flammable. The frigates retained their rigging as they would be required to move in the event of a major attack.


Name:  1024px-Battle_of_Basque_Roads_11_April_svg.jpg
Views: 94
Size:  86.8 KB


His preparations complete, Cochrane ordered the attack for the evening of 11 April, although Gambier was reluctant to allow his sailors to support Cochrane in the operation, saying "if you choose to rush to self-destruction that is your own affair . . . but it is my duty to take care of the lives of others, and I will not place the crews of the fireships in palpable danger". Cochrane was furious and after a bitter argument Gambier relented and gave permission for the attack to go ahead. He stationed Imperieuse near the Boyart Shoal to the north of the boom, approximately 2.5 nautical miles (4.6 km) from the French fleet, supported by frigates HMS Aigle, HMS Unicorn and HMS Pallas. This force would collect the crews of the fireships as they abandoned their blazing charges and rowed back towards the British line, and sloops HMS Redpole and HMS Lyra were equipped as light ships to guide the fireships into the channel. With these ships were the schooner HMS Whiting and cutters Nimrud and King George, all converted into floating rocket batteries. Aetna and two brigs anchored north of the forts on Île-d'Aix, while frigate Emerald and five smaller warships were to launch a diversionary attack to the east of the island. Gambier, with the main body of the fleet, moved closer to the entrance to Aix Roads, eventually anchoring 9 nautical miles (17 km) distant; it has been suggested by one historian that he may have done so in order that he could retreat out to sea easily should the French fleet attempt to attack him in the aftermath of a failed fireship assault.

Name:  1280px-Regulus_under_attack_by_British_fireships_August_11_1809.jpg
Views: 94
Size:  154.9 KB

The attack caused little direct damage, but in the narrow waters of the channel the fireships panicked the sailors of the French fleet and most of their ships grounded and were left immobile. Cochrane expected Gambier to follow his attack with the main fleet, which could then destroy the vulnerable French force, but Gambier refused.

Name:  1280px-Regulus_stranded_on_the_shoals_of_Les_Palles_August_12_1809.jpg
Views: 92
Size:  142.5 KB


Cochrane continued the battle over the next several days, successfully destroying several French ships, but with little support from Gambier. This allowed most of the French fleet to refloat and retreat up the Charente to safety. Gambier recalled Cochrane on 14 April and sent him back to Britain, withdrawing most of the inshore squadron at the same time, although scattered fighting continued until 24 April. The increasingly marginalised French fleet was badly damaged and trapped in its home ports; several captains were court-martialed for cowardice and one was shot.
The battle was undoubtedly a victory for the British; three French ships of the line, a fourth-rate and a frigate were destroyed and much of the remainder of the Brest fleet badly damaged and requiring extensive repairs; Océan and Foudroyant were in a particularly poor state. French casualties in the engagement are not known with certainty, but are estimated at 150–200, while British losses were only 13 killed and 30 wounded. Allemand later wrote that most significant damage resulting from the battle was to the morale of the French fleet; he wrote that "the greater part are disheartened; every day I hear them lamenting their situation, and speaking in praise of their enemy." Another French commentator told a British officer that the French sailors "had now no security from the English in their harbours, and they expected we should next go into Brest and take out their fleet". No British ships suffered more than minor damage in the two weeks of combat, and the fleet could return to its blockade with the knowledge that the Brest fleet was neutralised for some time to come and confined to Rochefort, although a powerful squadron was still under construction at Rochefort, where the defences had been swiftly repaired. This was the last time during the Napoleonic Wars that a significant French fleet was able to put to sea from the Atlantic ports; historian Richard Woodman describes it as the "biggest scare from a break-out French fleet in the post-Trafalgar period." Without naval support, the French colonies in the Caribbean were isolated, blockaded, invaded and captured shortly afterwards
In Britain the battle was celebrated as a victory, but many in the Navy were dissatisfied with Gambier's behaviour and Cochrane used his position as a Member of Parliament to publicly protest Gambier's leadership. Incensed, Gambier requested a court-martial to disprove Cochrane's accusations and the admiral's political allies ensured that the jury was composed of his supporters. After bitter and argumentative proceedings Gambier was exonerated of any culpability for failings during the battle. Cochrane's naval career was ruined, although the irrepressible officer remained a prominent figure in Britain for decades to come. Historians have almost unanimously condemned Gambier for his failure to support Cochrane; even Napoleon opined that he was an "imbécile".