THE BATTLE OF THE WINDWARD ISLANDS - 20th OCTOBER 1756.

The Spanish buildup in the Caribbean continued into the Fall. An army of Provincials was formed in Cuba in September, and by October General Alvarez's Army was well on its way to further reinforce that island.
Off the Windward Islands the Spanish fleet carrying Alvarez and his men rendezvoused with La Galissionnere's French Caribbean Fleet. Mindful of the presence of Admiral Hawke's squadrons at Jamaica, the Bourbon plan was for the French warships to escort the Spanish for the final leg of their journey. This would have been a much easier undertaking had Hawke not been reinforced over the Summer, and the British admiral's strength now greatly exceeded that of his opponent.
Hawke put to sea on October 8th and began sweeping the eastern Caribbean in search of both La Galissionnere, and the Spanish troop convoy reportedly on the way.
Less than two weeks later, on the morning of October 20th he was rewarded by the sight of sails approaching from the east. With the wind at its back, the British fleet began to close.
Disordered, and ill-prepared the French Fleet sights the British.
In far finer order, Hawke's squadrons approach.

ORDERS OF BATTLE: THE WINDWARD ISLANDS - OCTOBER 20th, 1756

BRITISH CARIBBEAN FLEET - ADMIRAL HAWKE

1st Squadron (Vice Admiral Edwards)
Cornwall (80) (Flag)
Robust (74)
Trident (64)

2nd Squadron (Vice Admiral Rhay)
Tonnant (80) (Flag)
Mars (74)
America (64)

3rd Squadron (Vice Admiral Vose)
Boyne (80) (Flag)
Bedford (74)
Prudence (64)

4th Squadron (Admiral Hawke)
Orion (74) (Flag)
Revenge (74)
Royal Oak (74)


FRENCH CARIBBEAN FLEET - ADMIRAL LA GALISSIONNERE

Van (Vice Admiral Brunneau)
Minerve (24) (Flag)
Topaz (24)
Gracieuse (24)
Zephyr (20)

Center (Admiral La Galissionere)
Argonaute (74) (Flag)
Aigle (74)
Berwick (74)
Algeciras (74)
Argus (16)

Rear (Vice Admiral Lavogez)
Jason (64) (Flag)
Provence (64)
Ardent (64)
Alcion (54)
Furet (16)

La Galissionnere had very little time to react to the sudden, and unwelcome appearance of British warships directly in his path. A quick survey of the approaching squadrons revealed that they outnumbered him in ships-of-the-line twelve to eight. Given the provenly superior British crews, and the fact that Hawke had the wind gauge on him, the French Admiral had little choice but to turn about at once, trying to get into some form of line of battle in the process, and then lead the British on a stern chase away from the Spanish troopships.
The French Turn to Port, and attempt to get into line.

This plan was formed and executed just in time. The French vessels came about, and began to open the distance between them and their foes just as the British who had been coming at them with all possible speed started to get into range.
Vice-Admiral Rhay in HMS Tonnant leads Hawke's Second Squadron.

Hawke's fleet was sailing in four squadrons spread out over about two miles of ocean. The moderate wind was coming from the west, and, in the finest Royal Navy tradition, the British vessels kept superb formation. In fact, upon sighting the French only Hawke's flagship, Orion, was in any way off station, leading the Admiral to remark wryly that; "The Admiral's flagship is never out of formation. It is every other ship that is not at its post".
As if to make up for this embarrassment, it was Orion, leading the British charge, that fired the first shots of the battle around noon. Changing course slightly to the northeast to bring her guns to bear, the Orion sailed across the stern of the French 54 gun fourth-rate Alcion and raked her from long range. Under the admiral's watchful eye, the British gunnery was immediately deadly. Balls flew the length of the Alcion's decks, killing, and maiming crew, upturning guns, and holing both hull and sails. Not wanting to experience any more such treatment, the French immediately focussed repair efforts on the sails, and managed to maintain speed, frustrating Hawke's hopes of bringing them to further action.
Battle is joined, as Hawke's flagship, Orion, stern rakes Alcion to deadly effect.

About one o'clock the wind started to shift to the southwest, and to drop. This briefly allowed the British to engage again, this time at multiple points along the line. Orion opened up again on the Alcion, now from closer range, and this time was joined by Revenge. The effects on the smaller French vessel were immediate and dreadful. Masts came down, her guns fell silent and she began taking on water. Her captain, seeing no other course ordered the ship's colors to be struck.
After taking devastating fire from Orion, and Revenge, Alcion strikes her colors.

At the southern end of the engagement the Cornwall managed to come abreast of the Berwick but came under heavy and accurate fire immediately. The British vessel veered away, damaged and with the crew busily engaged in repairing sails and rigging was unable to return fire.
Hawke declined to stop to take possession of his prize, and that honor fell to HMS Prudent at the rear of Vose's squadron following behind the Admiral. A little after four o'clock Prudent came alongside the shattered Alcion to accept her surrender, and put aboard a prize crew.
Prudent accepts Alcion's surrender.

Throughout the afternoon the wind continued to drop, slowing both sides as they headed east, out from under clouds and into bright tropical sunshine. It wasn't until almost six o'clock that broadsides crashed out again. This time Tonnant had managed to catch up to the redoubtable Berwick. Initially, the presence of Vice Admiral Rhay on the deck of the Tonnant proved less motivating than that of Hawke aboard the Orion, and the fire from both sides was ineffectual. Then, around seven, as the wind finally began to pick back up and shift back to the west, Berwick found the range, inflicting severe damage on its opponent, and doing enough injury to Tonnant's sails to enable the French ship to pull away again.
Tonnant and Berwick, exchanging broadsides at long range.

With dusk beginning to fall, La Galissionnere signaled for his captains to turn to port and give the British a few parting shots. A frustrating day for Hawke was not improved when his flagship was bow-raked by Aigle, and then further damaged by Algeciras. The Berwick, whose captain was to be promoted personally by La Galissionnere the following day, added to its laurels by damaging Mars, only for Tonnant to sail up and exact a measure of revenge with a few well-placed broadsides, as the French slipped away into the gathering gloom to the east.
The French deliver a few painful parting blows to Orion

Although they had suffered more damage overall, the capture of the Alcion, and the fact that the French had fled the field, meant that tactically the battle was a a British victory. Strategically however, it was very much a French success. They had held up very well against a superior opponent, and Hawke was unable to inflict any damage on the Spanish fleet carrying Alvarez and his army. The latter proceeded to Cuba, and docked safely in Havana on the 27th.
What Hawke had achieved though was to clear the Caribbean of Bourbon shipping. La Galissionere, declining to retreat to port and risk being blockaded, and not having suffered enough damage to be in need of repairs, withdrew to the coast of South America where he protected Spanish, and French shipping bringing wealth back from the colonies. In the Caribbean, and along the eastern seaboard of North America, however, it was the Royal Navy that ruled the waves, and only British merchantmen that were free to sail.
The battle of The Windward Islands itself was a disappointment for the British, and an engagement in which the French had performed commendably, but its strategic consequences left the British very much in the ascendant when it came to the economic aspects of war. London's coffers ended 1756 in a far fuller state than those of Paris.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

FALL 1758.

What now?