Breaking the line - Rodney and the Battle of the Saintes in 1782

12 April 1782 in the West Indies, a British squadron commanded by Sir George Rodney defeated the French under the Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes, the last major naval engagement of the American War of Independence.
“Had a chief worthy Britain commanded our fleet, Twenty-five good French ships had been laid at our feet“ (John Leyland, quoting a contemporary poem)

Lieutenant William Elliott: "Rodney’s flagship Formidable breaking through the French line at the Saintes"
(after 1784)

When Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown in October 1781, the American Revolutionary War had long since escalated into a world-spanning conflict between Great Britain and the future United States’ allies France, Spain and the Dutch Republic, with war theatres from Canada to Gibraltar and India. The loss of HM’s North American colonies was, in the late 18th century, rather a matter of prestige than an immediate economic threat and the sugar cane fields in Jamaica still yielded far more profit than all 13 colonies taken together. And after making a major dent in the archenemy’s self-esteem, French strategic considerations turned to the real objectives of the war. Thus, after playing a pivotal role in preventing the British to land reinforcements in Virginia, leading directly to Cornwallis’ surrender, Admiral Comte de Grasse’s squadron of 24 ships-of-the-line that saw off the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Chesapeake in September 1781, was ordered to French Santo Domingo. Over the following winter, a large invasion fleet of 35 French and 12 Spanish battleships was assembled, along with 15,000 troops about to embark in a convoy bound for Jamaica. The French contingent left Martinique on 7 April 1782 to rendezvous with the Spanish and strike out. In the meanwhile, Admiral Lord Hood, outnumbered by de Grasse’s squadron, finally failed to prevent the French from taking St Kitts, despite a series of bold manoeuvres. When Lord Rodney arrived in Caribbean Waters with 17 more ships-of-the-line, the British even had a slight advantage in numbers and sailed to intercept de Grasse. Having received their new copper bottoms, Rodney’s squadron, now numbering 36 battleships, sailed considerably faster than de Grasse’s 33, their hulls overrun with marine growth, holed by teredo navalis, shipworms, and corroded by years in salt water without a necessary overhaul. On April 9th, Rodney was sighted and de Grasse ordered his convoy off to Guadeloupe and a few broadsides were exchanged. For two days more, the two fleets moved alongside of each other, trying to get the weather gauge for the upcoming battle. 

Thomas Withcombe: "The Battle of the Saintes" (1783) 

Halfway between Guadeloupe and Dominica near the small archipelago of the Îles des Saintes, a French straggler, the seventy-four Zélé, was sighted in the early morning of April 12th. Four ships-of-the-line from Hood’s van sheared out and immediately gave chase while de Grasse ordered his squadron to form a battle line and hastened to the rescue. Hood’s “Barfleur” (98) recalled the four British breakaways and Rodney’s “Formidable” (98) signalled “form line-of-battle” as well. With the broadsides roaring from the battery decks of HMS “Marlborough” (74) in the van, the Battle of the Saintes had begun in earnest at 7:40 am. Whether it was intentional or just due to a sudden change of wind, around 9:20 am, the British centre followed the “Formidable” after Rodney’s flagship had changed course all of a sudden and bore down on the French line, taking de Grasse’s flag “Ville de Paris” (104) under fire, breaking the line a few minutes later and raking the vulnerable fore and aft sections of the French ships with both broadsides. Another recently adopted British invention soon began to take a terrible toll: the heavy calibre, short ranged carronades. Called “smashers” by Britain’s jolly tars, the new guns lived up to their nom de guerre. The British rear followed Rodney’s example and cut the French line as well and soon the orderly battle lines were deteriorating into an all-out melee at close range. The “Ville de Paris” desperately signalled to re-form into a line again and was ignored several times. And while the audacious manoeuver against all established rules of naval warfare of the day, whether it was intended or not, certainly won the battle for the British, it had cost them the weather gauge and soon the French ships-of-the-line, even with their un-coppered hulls, managed to break away in small groups while the British had to tack several times before they could pursue them. Then, for inexplicable reasons, Rodney broke off the chase. The battle was over.   

An imagination of the Battle of the Saintes by the Swiss painter and engraver François Aimé Louis Dumoulin (1753 – 1834) who was in Grenada while the engagement was fought

Rodney was feted for his daring for the rest of his life and while going for close action would have certainly changed the outcome of the Battle of the Chesapeake as well and maybe the course of the American Revolution, the British success of the Battle of the Saintes was moderate at best. Despite their breaking the French line, only one of de Grasse’s 33 ships-of-the-line was destroyed and 4 more were captured, even though the “Ville de Paris” and the Comte himself were among them. The rest of the French squadron, now under the former explorer de Bougainville, did indeed join up with the Spanish off Guadeloupe, but with the severe losses among crews, the damage received in battle and a subsequent outbreak of a plague, the invasion of Jamaica was off the cards. About half a year later, the war was finally over. Trying to break the enemy line, however, and engage the enemy at close range had caught on and became a decisive part of naval tactics in subsequent conflicts, first and foremost in Nelson’s famous battles.    

And more about the Battle of the Saintes on: