Battle of Cape Finisterre (1805)


Battle of Cape Finisterre (1805)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Cape Finisterre
partof=the Napoleonic Wars


caption=
date=22 July 1805
place=Off Cape Finisterre
casus=
territory=
result=British victory
combatant1=
combatant2=
commander1=Robert Calder
commander2=Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve
strength1=15 ships of the line
strength2=14 French,
6 Spanish ships of the line
casualties1=39 dead,
159 wounded
casualties2=476 dead or wounded,
800 Spanish surrendered
2 Spanish ships captured

In the Battle of Cape Finisterre (22 July 1805) off Galicia (Spain), the British fleet under Admiral Calder prevented the Franco-Spanish fleet under Admiral de Villeneuve from entering the English Channel to help Napoleon invade Britain during the War of the Third Coalition in the Napoleonic Wars.

Strategic background

The fragile Peace of Amiens of 1802 had come to an end when Napoleon formally annexed the Italian state of Piedmont and on 18 May 1803 Britain was once again at war with France.

Napoleon planned to end the British blockade by invading and conquering Britain. By 1805 his "Armée d'Angleterre" was 150,000 strong and encamped at Boulogne. If this army could cross the English Channel, victory over the poorly trained and equipped British army and militias was very likely. The plan was that the French navy would escape from the British blockades of Toulon and Brest and threaten to attack the West Indies, thus drawing off the British defence of the Western Approaches. The combined fleets would rendezvous at Martinique and then double back to Europe, land troops in Ireland to raise a rebellion, defeat the weakened British patrols in the Channel, and help transport the Armée d'Angleterre across the Straits of Dover.

Villeneuve sailed from Toulon on 29 March 1805 with eleven ships of the line, six frigates and two brigs. He evaded Admiral Nelson's blockading fleet and passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 8 April. At Cádiz he drove off the British blockading squadron and was joined by six Spanish ships of the line. The combined fleet sailed for the West Indies, reaching Martinique on 12 May.

Nelson was kept in the Mediterranean by westerly winds and did not pass the Strait until 7 May 1805. The British fleet of ten ships reached Antigua on 4 June.

Villeneuve waited at Martinique for Admiral Ganteaume's Brest fleet to join him, but it remained blockaded in port and did not appear. Pleas from French army officers for Villeneuve to attack British colonies went unheeded — except for the recapture of the island fort of Diamond Rock — until 4 June when he set out from Martinique. On 7 June he learned from a captured British merchantman that Nelson had arrived at Antigua, and on 11 June Villeneuve left for Europe, having failed to achieve any of his objectives in the Caribbean.

While in the Antilles, the Franco-Spanish fleet ran into a British convoy worth 5 million Francs escorted by the frigate "Barbadoes", 28 guns and sloop "Netley". Villeneuve hoisted general chase and two French frigates with the Spanish ship "Argonauta", 80 guns captured all the ships but one escort.

On June 30 the combined squadron captured and burned an English 14 gun privateer. On July 3 the fleet recaptured Spanish galleon "Matilda", which carried an estimated 15 million Franc treasure, from English privateer "Mars", from Liverpool, which was towing "Matilda" to an English harbour. The privateer was burned and the merchant was taken in tow by the French frigate "Siréne".

The fleet sailed back to Europe, and on July 9 the French ship "Indomptable" lost its main spar in a NE gale that damaged some other vessels slightly. The Atlantic crossings had been very difficult according to Spanish Admiral Gravina who had crossed the Atlantic 11 times. So with some ships in bad condition, tired crews and scarce victuals, the combined fleet sighted land near Cape Finisterre on July 22.

Battle

News of the returning French fleet reached Vice Admiral Robert Calder on 19 July. He was ordered to lift his blockade [http://www.pbenyon.plus.com/Navy_List_1805/Ship_Duties/Off_Port.html] of the ports of Rochefort and Ferrol and sail for Cape Finisterre to intercept Villeneuve. The fleets sighted each other at about 11:00 on 22 July.

After several hours of manoeuvering to the south-west, the action began at about 17:15 as the British fleet, with "Hero" (Captain Alan Hyde Gardner) in the van, bore down on the Franco-Spanish line of battle. In poor visibility, the battle became a confused melee. At about 20:00 "Firme" and "San Rafaël" surrendered. Calder signalled to break-off the action at 20:25, aiming to continue the battle the next day. In the failing light and general confusion some ships continued to fire for another hour.

Daybreak on 23 July found the fleets 27 km apart. Calder was unwilling to attack a second time against superior odds, he had to protect the damaged "Windsor Castle" and "Malta", and he had to consider the possibility that the previously blockaded fleets at Rochefort and Ferrol might put to sea and effect a junction with Villeneuve's combined fleet. Accordingly he declined to attack and headed northeast with his prizes.

Villeneuve's report claims that at first he intended to attack, but in the very light breezes it took all day to come up to the British and he decided not to risk combat late in the day. On 24 July a change in the wind put the Franco-Spanish fleet to the windward of the British — the ideal position for an attack — but instead of attacking, Villeneuve turned away to the south. When he arrived at A Coruña on 1 August he received orders from Napoleon to proceed immediately to Brest and Boulogne, but perhaps believing a false report of a superior British fleet in the Bay of Biscay, he returned to Cádiz, reaching that port on 21 August.

Aftermath

The battle was a defeat for the French: fifteen British ships had engaged twenty Franco-Spanish and captured two Spanish. The British losses were 39 officers and men killed and 159 wounded; the allied losses 476 officers and men killed and wounded. Most importantly, Villeneuve had failed in all his objectives: he had landed no troops in Ireland, and Napoleon's "Armée d'Angleterre" waited uselessly at Boulogne as before.

The British public and Admiralty did not see the action in that light, however. Calder was relieved of his command, court-martialled, and sentenced to be severely reprimanded for his failure to seek action on 23 and 24 July. He never served at sea again.

Napoleon, frustrated by the result, was forced to abandon his plan of invading Britain. Instead, the "Armée d'Angleterre", renamed the "Grande Armée", left Boulogne on 27 August to counter the threat from Austria and Russia. A few weeks after the battle he wrote: "Gravina is all genius and decision in combat. If Villeneuve had had those qualities, the battle of Finisterre would have been a complete victory."

Villeneuve and the combined fleets remained at Cádiz until they came out to their destruction at the battle of Trafalgar on 21 October.

British Fleet

*Calder had fifteen ships of the line ("Prince of Wales", "Glory", "Barfleur", "Windsor Castle", "Malta", "Thunderer", "Hero", "Repulse", "Defiance", "Ajax", "Warrior", "Dragon", "Triumph", "Agamemnon", and "Raisonnable"), two frigates ("Egyptienne" and "Sirius"), and two smaller vessels.

Franco-Spanish Fleet

*Villeneuve had twenty ships of the line (six Spanish: "Argonauta", "Terrible", "America", "Espana", "San Rafaël", "Firme"; fourteen French: "Pluton", "Mont Blanc", "Atlas", "Berwick", "Neptune", "Bucentaure", "Formidable", "Intrépide", "Scipion", "Swiftsure", "Indomptable", "Aigle", "Achille", and "Algésiras") with seven frigates, and two brigs.

(according to Juan Ramón Viana Villavicencio)

See also

* Battle of Cape Finisterre for other battles of this name.
* Ferrol Spanish Capital of the Maritime Department of the North (1788 AD).

Notes

References

* William James, "Naval History of Great Britain, 1793–1827".
* Bennett, G. "The Battle of Trafalgar", Barnsley (2004). ISBN 1-84415-107-7

External links

* [http://ferrol.historia.tripod.com/ferrolnaval1788/ Spanish Capital of the Maritime Department of the North (1788 AD).]
* [http://www.pbenyon.plus.com/Navy_List_1805/Ship_Duties/Off_Port.html Vessels Blockading various French and Spanish ports - May 1805.]
* [http://www.pbenyon.plus.com/Navy_List_1805/Index.html Index of British Vessels - May 1805.]
* [http://www.pbase.com/photokhan/image/28940870 The Naval Station of Ferrol in pictures - 2004.]
* [http://www.todoababor.es/articulos/finisterre.htm Todo a Babor. La Batalla de Finisterre] The battle of Finisterre. In Spanish.


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