"Now obey my order and lay me alongside the French admiral.” - The Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759

20 November 1759, during the Seven Years’ War, Lord Hawke with 24 sail-of-the-line decisively defeated Admiral de Conflans' 21 battleships in a hard fought battle during a November storm off the coast of Brittany in the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

“You have done your duty in this remonstrance. Now obey my order and lay me alongside the French admiral.” (Admiral Lord Hawke to the sailing master of HMS “Royal George” after the latter had warned him about the exceedingly dangerous character of the approach to Quiberon Bay)

Nicholas Pocock (1740 - 1821): "The Battle of Quiberon Bay" (1812)

Even if Boscawen’s victory off Lagos had effectively put the French Mediterranean squadron out of the war, 21 battleships under Marshal de Conflans still lay in the mouth of the Loire to escort a ramshackle invasion fleet and 100,000 French and Imperial troops across the Channel to invade Southern England, Ireland and Scotland where the Jacobite Rising of Forty-five and Charles Stuart, now in France, were not forgotten. Even without the reinforcements of the 12 ships-of-the-line from the Med that never came, the Duc de Choiseul’s plan to end the Seven Years’ War within a couple of months was still a serious threat, especially because most of Britain’s line troops were deployed abroad, from Canada to Central Europe and India, the militia back home rioted and everybody, the French, the British and the rest of the world anxiously watched the weather in the Channel. Admittedly, weather conditions in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and the North Sea are not especially known for unseasonal improvements and Admiral Hawke’s blockading squadron of 24 battleships still stood off shore to end the threat for good. Public opinion in England was not in Hawke’s favour, though, as he had let slip already three convoys through the blockade over the last years with troops that were now fighting in the Americas and effigies of Hawke were hung from pub signs all along the coast of England in disdain. To top it all, fierce November gales had forced Hawke’s squadron back to Torbay. And the French were out at sea already. De Conflans had sailed on the 14th of November from Brest for the Gulf of Morbihan to collect the transports and the weather be damned.

Richard Paton’s (1717 – 1791) imagination of the Battle of Quiberon Bay (1760) showing the sinking “Thésée” in the centre.

On November 20th, early in the day, de Conflans had sighted a brace of 4th rates under Commodore Duff still in place and, convinced of an easy victory, he ordered his vanguard to give chase, ignoring the sails approaching from the west. Duff split his ships, the French centre made sail to join the pursuit and with his squadron scattered off the Belle Isle, de Conflans was a bit surprised when the newly arriving vessels turned out to be Hawke’s battle fleet under full sails despite the vile weather conditions, flying the signal for ‘Use utmost endeavour … to engage closely.’ themselves. That was quite a bit more than de Conflans had bargained for. He decided to withdraw into the Bay of Quiberon northeast of Belle Isle and form a defensive line within the labyrinth of reefs and shoals there, while Hawke’s sail-of-the-line already bore down on the French rear. “Formidable” (80) had to surrender to HMS “Resolution” (74), “Thésée” (74) foundered when her lower gun deck was flooded through her open gun ports and was lost with all hands after her artillery duel with the old HMS “Torbay” (74) while Hawke’s own “Royal George” (100) sunk the “Superbe” (70) with only two broadsides. De Conflans had already lost the engagement before it had really begun. The storm over Quiberon Bay was still blowing when night began to fall, Hawke ordered his squadron to anchor, “Soleil Royal” (80), de Conflans flagship, and “Héros” (74) ran aground in the dark and were burned, only seven French ships-of-the-line managed to escape to Rochefort in the night, seven others jettisoned their artillery and fled into the mouth of the river Vilaine where they remained until the war was over. The French Atlantic Fleet was destroyed as an effective fighting force, six battleships were sunk or burned, one was captured and the rest scattered while Hawke’s losses amounted to two ships-of-the-line that had to be abandoned and destroyed after running aground in the treacherous waters of the bay while the weather continued to be abysmal.

Richard Wright (1723 - 1775): "The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 21 November 1759: the Day After" (1760)

Hawke’s naval victory in the bay of Quiberon was the climax of Britain’s “annus mirabilis” of 1759, the year the tides of war turned in their favour. Now, Britannia ruled the waves almost unchallenged, could strike at will at French overseas trade, a fact recognised by the markets on the continent with an immediate credit crunch, but, far more important, the French and Spanish colonies in America and India could no longer be supplied and, despite initial successes on the battlefields, were ceded to Britain after the Seven Years’ War ended with the Peace of Paris in 1763. Thus, Hawke’s daring and his throwing caution and orthodox naval tactics literally to the wind in Quiberon Bay was at least as consequential in terms of empire building as Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar almost 50 years later. However, back in the day, the actor David Garrick wrote the words of “Heart of Oak” to Boyce’s rousing music in celebration of Hawke’s feat, the song would become the hymn of the Royal Navy, crowds in the streets shouted “Quiberon!” and “Hawke!” Nelson’s mentor William Locker had served under Hawke, admired the admiral to an extent that he had named his son after him and passed on the tradition of daring head-on naval tactics to his famous mentee who wrote on the eve of Trafalgar: “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy and fights.”

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