Last act of the Trafalgar Campaign: The Battle of Cape Ortegal

4 November 1805, The Trafalgar Campaign finally ended with the Battle of Cape Ortegal and Commodore Richard Strachan’s capture of the four French ships of the line that had escaped Nelson on 21 October.

“… one of those in our service whom I estimate the highest. I do not believe he has his fellow among the Admirals, unless it be Pellew, for ability, and it is not possible to have more zeal and gallantry … It is my wish to serve with Strachan, as I know him to be extremely brave and full of zeal and ardour, at the same time that he is an excellent seaman, and, tho' an irregular, impetuous fellow, possessing very quick parts and an uncommon share of sagacity and strong sense.“ (Captain Graham Moore in a letter to his brother General Sir John Moore of Corunna, 1808)

Strachan's HMS "Caesar" engaging "Mont Blanc" during the Battle of Cape Ortegal

Six sail of the line that might have made all the difference at Trafalgar. According to Villeneuve’s order of battle, they were the rear division of the allied fleet, commanded by Contre-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley. They found themselves in the van when the order to wear came and the Franco-Spanish armada headed back to Cádiz at eight o’clock in the morning. Then the wind dropped, shifted its direction again and again, at 11 am Nelson’s ships hove in sight, two hours later, “Victory” cut into Villeneuve’s ragtail line and opened up on “Redoutable” and now the inexperience of Dumanoir le Pelley’s crews began to tell, as well as the somewhat neglected conditions the allied ships were in towards the end of the Trafalgar Campaign. However, Dumanoir decided not to wear his ships again and sail them into the confused melee of the breaking allied centre or at least decided to do so far too late around 2 pm. He did not head off straight away, though, made a bit of a show, might have considered to obey Villeneuve’s original orders and make for Toulon, but did not interfere with the general action besides exchanging a few broadsides with HMS “Africa” who had wandered off course a bit and tried to join up with Nelson again. When it became clear that there was nothing more that could be done anyway, Dumanoir called it a day and signalled to his squadron to break off the engagement they never really had joined. Two of his captains decided to disobey his orders, Capitaine Infernet of “Intrépide” and Capitano Valdés y Flores of “Neptuno” finally went to fight the British in earnest and were both captured by the end of the day. Dumanoir  got away from Trafalgar with four by and large undamaged ships of the line, continued up north, past Cape St Vincent and towards the Bay of Biscay and the assumed safety of a French port like Rochefort. Nelson though hadn’t mustered all the British squadrons off the Spanish coast and in the Bay of Biscay to face Villeneuve’s allied fleet at Trafalgar. Not by far. And while the battered participants of the epic battle now fought against the storm that raged across the Atlantic for a week, others had kept their endless vigil, at Gibraltar and along the coasts of Galicia, en route to Rochefort.

Thomas Whitcombe's sketch of the climax of the Battle of Cape Ortegal, 1805

Captain Thomas Baker of HM frigate “Phoenix” was actually supposed to patrol in the region off the Scilly Isles west of Cornwall since another rogue French squadron under Contre-Admiral Zacharie Allemand was still at large, out somewhere in the Atlantic and harassing British merchant shipping with a vengeance. A false report made Baker abandon his post, more or less the privilege of an independent command, and look for the “invisible squadron” in the Bay of Biscay. Pure happenstance found “Phoenix” near Cape Finisterre about the time when Dumanoir sailed northeast towards the bay. Sighting the British frigate, Dumanoir decided to give chase before the cruiser might be able to blow the gaff in regards to his whereabouts. To a squadron of four of-the-line, for instance, accompanied by a brace of frigates, heading west towards Cape Ortegal. And pretty soon the hunters became the hunted. Under the command of Commodore Richard Strachan, the still scattered British squadron sighted Dumanoir’s ships in the evening hours of November 2nd, the French tried to escape to the Northwest, deeper into the Atlantic, the British regrouped and caught up with them under the surveillance of the four frigates present, pursued Dumanoir during the following day and finally, in the wee hours of November 4th, two of the frigates began to snap at Dumanoir’s heels in earnest and opened fire on “Scipion”’, the hindmost of the four French battleships, with Strachan’s squadron still 6 miles off.  At noontime, a few dozen miles north of Cape Ortegal, the British ships of the line arrived and joined in. Dumanoir finally ordered his own four ships to form a battle line, the result was probably at least as slovenly as Villeneuve’s attempt at Trafalgar due to his officers’ and crews lack of experience and, like Trafalgar, Strachan engaged them in single combat, the frigates firing their 12 and 18 pounders into the French ships of the line for good measure as well, unusually, since frigates stood off when battleships fought in the days of Nelson’s navy. However, by half past three, all four French battleships had struck their colours and the last act of the Trafalgar campaign was over.

John Francis Sartorius' (1775 - 1831) imagination of Strachan's squadron returning home with the prizes taken at Cape Ortegal, with HMS "Caesar" in the centre towing the dismasted "Formidable" (c 1807)

Strachan, his officers and crews were feted as heroes when they came back home to England, victorious, with their four prizes intact. There was a knighthood and a promotion to rear-admiral in it for ”Mad Dick” Strachan himself, nicknamed so for having a bit of a temper. And even though he did not catch Allemand’s “Invisible Squadron” when he returned to his post in the Bay of Biscay nor cover himself exactly with glory during the botched Walcheren Expedition of 1809, botched primarily due his temper and his inability to liaise reasonably with the Pongoes involved, Strachan still received a bow from Napoleon when the captured ogre saw and recognised him in the longboat below HMS “Bellerophon’s” stern in Plymouth Sound, when Mad Dick was rowed out to finally see the man he fought for almost a lifetime. The four French ships-of-the-line captured off Cape Ortegal were all commissioned into the Royal Navy. “Formidable”, Dumanoir’s flagship served, since there already was a HMS “Formidable”, as HMS “Brave”, until after the war, when she was broken up in 1816, “Scipion” kept her name and remained in service until 1819, taking part in various skirmishes from Java to the Bay of Biscay, “Mont Blanc” became a powder hulk already in 1811, but the former “Duguay-Trouin” really stole the show. Named after a Breton corsair from the 17th century, she was launched in Toulon in 1800, almost shot to a wreck at Cape Ortegal and finally commissioned as HMS “Implacable”. Probably because nobody could pronounce her maiden name. However, “Implacable” served for the rest of the war, quite successfully, in the Baltics, the Bay of Biscay and off Spain and for decades afterwards until she was laid up in 1842. She became a training ship and by the turn of the century, “Implacable” was used for all kinds of things, from being receiving ship to holiday resort and coal hulk, attempts were made to preserve her when she had become the second oldest ship of the Royal Navy after “Victory” herself. And then, in 1949, she was finally scuttled off the Isle of Wight, flying both the British White Ensign and a French Tricolore. Her stern gallery had been preserved, though, and can now be admired, marvelled and wondered at in Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum.

The short contemporary film below shows the end of HMS “Implacable”:

And more about the Battle of Cape Ortegal on: