"We gave them their Valentine in style" - The Battle of Cape St Vincent

14 February 1797, Admiral Sir John Jarvis defeated a Spanish squadron almost twice the size of his own at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, while Horatio Nelson distinguished himself with the invention of his “patent bridge for boarding enemy vessels".

"We gave them their Valentine in style" (unknown British naval gunner aboard HMS “Goliath”)

James Wilson Carmichael (1800 – 1868): “Battle of Cape St Vincent 1797“

It was the alliance of Republican France with the Spanish disaster of a Prime Minister, the self-styled “Prince of Peace” Manuel Godoy and his treaty of San Ildefonso, that gave the British admiralty nightmares. All of a sudden, a potential allied fleet of 38 ships-of-the-line might be available to overwhelm the Channel Fleet and finally allow the French to invade. Fortunately, the 24 Spanish battleships were still based in the Mediterranean. On February 1st , though, Admiral José de Cordóba ordered his fleet to sail from Cartagena to Cádiz. About the same time, 10 sail-of-the-line of the British Mediterranean Fleet under Sir John Jervis, bolstered by 5 battleships from the Channel Fleet, left Lisbon to intercept and, at the very least, force them back again into the Med. Jervis’ reports about the size of Cordóba’s armada must have been somewhat understated, an almost two-to-one superiority was a rather tough nut to crack, even for his well-drilled crews. But Cordóba had to be stopped before he gained the Atlantic and that was that. In the wee hours of February 14th then, off Cape St Vincent, HMS “Culloden” signalled to Jervis aboard his flag HMS “Victory” that five enemy sail had been sighted, coming out of a fog. A few moments later, they were visible to the whole British squadron and Jervis’ flag captain began to count and addressed his admiral: "There are eight sail of the line, Sir John" - "Very well, sir" - "There are twenty sail of the line, Sir John" - "Very well, sir" - "There are twenty five sail of the line, Sir John" - "Very well, sir" -"There are twenty seven sail of the line, Sir John" - "Enough, sir, no more of that; the die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them".

Nicholas Pocock’s impression of “The 'Captain' capturing the 'San Nicolas' and the 'San José' at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797“ (1801)

Around 11:00 a.m., the flag signalled to the squadron: “Form in a line of battle ahead and astern of Victory as most convenient.“ and ten minutes later: “Engage the enemy”. The enemy was strung in two loose columns, obviously still unprepared for battle and with having the weather gauge that more or less allowed Jervis to control the initial movement of the engagement, around 11:30, “Victory” flew the signal: “Admiral intends to pass through enemy lines“ - between the two columns and exposing them to both broadsides of the British ships-of-the-line, highly risky, since his own ships were exposed to enemy fire on both sides as well, but Jervis counted on his experienced crews who were able to fire their large 24 and 32 pounder guns at least three times as quick as the inexperienced, newly recruited Spanish gunners. Several attempts to break the British line failed and leaving the two Spanish divisions quite battered after his initial manoeuvre, Jervis ordered his squadron to wear ship and go at it again on a reverse course. The larger of the two Spanish squadrons was about to pull clear of the engagement and make for Cadiz and then Nelson’s opportunity came aboard HMS “Captain”, the last ship in Jervis’ line. Rather freely interpreting Jervis’ last signals, he ordered “Captain” to sheer out and sail right across the bows of the Spanish. 

Antonio de Brugada Vila (1804-1863): “Infante Don Pelayo attempts to rescue the Santísima Trinidad“ (1863) 

For a moment "Captain" was under fire from six enemy battleships, three of them first rates, the mighty "Santísima Trinidad", the largest warship afloat, among them - but the British had time to catch up and engage the Spanish anew. Then the battered, disabled and almost adrift "Captain" ran afoul of two of the first rates, "San Nicolás" and "San José", who had become entangled themselves. Nelson decided to board "San Nicolás" - with the cry of "Westminster Abbey or Glorious Victory!" he personally led the assault, forced her surrender and then ordered his men to cross over to San José", capturing her as well. The manoeuvre would have been pure suicide, had at least one of the Spanish crews been better trained, but so, as contemporaries put it, "Nelson's patent bridge for boarding enemy vessels" was invented. Four Spanish ships-of-the-line were captured in total and the rest fled to Cadiz to be blockaded by Jervis, who was a few weeks later created “Earl St Vincent”, while Nelson was knighted for his endeavours and received an independent command over the squadron of the Mediterranean fleet that would beat the French at Aboukir Bay a year and a half later.