Saturday, 21 November 2020

All at Sea - Spanish Third Rates of Renown (Argonauta)

Finisterre - Carlos Parrilla Penagos
The 80-gun Argonauta, flying the pennant of Admiral Gravina at her mizzen, and leading the van of the Combined Fleet, exchanges broadsides with HMS Hero in the van of Vice Admiral Sir Robert Calder's squadron during the Battle of Cape Finisterre 22nd July 1805

The final ship to present in the series looking at the Third Rates of Renown is a great one to finish on and described in her time, along with her sister Neptuno, as one of the best ships in Europe, namely the Spanish 80-gun ship of the line, Argonauta designed by Julian Martin de Rematosa and built in El Ferrol, launching there on the 28th June 1798.

However the launch of the Argonauta also signalled a significant point in the trajectory of the Spanish navy and Spain's future role as a European power at that time, in that the years of war and decline had started to take effect and the ship would be the last Spanish warship to be launched until after Trafalgar with the previous rhythm of three to four warships built a year now no longer possible with King Charles IV treasury unable to fund that level of investment as well as maintaining the fleet as it was.

On the 28th April 1799 the Argonauta together with two frigates and a brig departed El Ferrol under her new commander Captain Juan Herrera Davila, bound for Roquefort to join a French squadron as part of a plan to join the French in an invasion of Ireland.

Captain Juan Herrera Davila, Argonauta's first commander,_Juan_Maria_de_Biografia

During their time there waiting for the French to complete their preparations, the port was attacked by a British naval squadron on the 2nd July under Rear Admiral Charles Morice Pole, supported by bomb ships, with the affair ending with the British ships being driven off by a combination of fire from a French mortar battery outranging the bombs and French gunboats that succeeded in driving them away.

Rear Admiral Sir Charles Morice Pole

The British maintained their blockade of Rochefort but in September the Spanish squadron managed to put to sea, attempting to join the Spanish and French ships under Admirals Bruix and Mazarredo in Brest, but on finding that port blockaded by forty British ships decided to abort their mission and return to El Ferrol.

Rear Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, seen here in a picture from 1799,
led the abortive raid on El Ferrol on the 25th-26th August 1800

With a Spanish squadron of six ships of the line, four frigates and two brigs in El Ferrol, the port also soon found itself under British blockade by a detachment from the British Channel fleet under Rear-Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren who initiated a landing on August 25th-26th 1800 with troops under the command of Lieutenant General Sir James Pultney who succeeded in silencing a nearby fort overlooking the bay in which they were landed and reaching the heights above the port, which it seems was completely open to attack, but with Pultney convinced that he was facing stiffer defences than anticipated, misled by reports from captured prisoners, he withdrew the force the next day, leaving Argonauta and her sister ships to fight another day.

On the 20th April 1801 in company with San Fernando 98-guns, Real Carlos 112-guns, San Hermenegildo 112-guns, San Augustin 74-guns the Argonauta left Ferrol bound for Cadiz to join the Spanish squadron under Admiral Don Jose de Mazzaredo.

On the 6th July French Rear-Admiral Charles Linois squadron of three ships and a frigate had been attacked on route to Cadiz by Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez at the First Battle of Algeciras, and with the British beaten off and withdrawing across the bay to Gibraltar to make repairs, Linois requested support from the Spanish in Cadiz to escort his equally battered ships to the Spanish port.

Thus on the 9th July the El Ferrol squadron now under Mazzeredo's command accompanied by the French 74-gun Saint Antoine, recently purchased by France from Spain and the frigates Santa Sabina and Perla each of 34-guns left Cadiz to join their beleaguered French allies, before escorting them back to Cadiz via the Gibraltar Straits on the 12th July, triggering the Second Battle of Algeciras as Saumarez set off in pursuit from Gibraltar with the evening sky darkening as both squadrons moved to the horizon.

The Second Battle of Algeciras - Thomas Whitcombe
The two Spanish 112-gun first rates, Real Carlos and San Hermenegildo blast each other into blazing wrecks as HMS Superb who caused the Spanish confusion has progressed to attack the French San Antoine, seen beyond the two Spanish men of war, as the following British ships make best speed to catch up in her wake.

The battle that followed was a confusing night action that allowed the fastest of the British ships HMS Superb to close with the Franco-Spanish rear and provoke the two confused Spanish first rates into firing into each other, resulting in their joint destruction as seen in Thomas Whitcombe's picture above.

Following that exchange of fire Superb would encounter the newly minted French 74-gun Saint Antoine, taking her in a short sharp thirty minute fight that left her captain wounded upon his own quarterdeck.

Some honour was restored by a creditable rearguard fought by the French Formidable under her new commander Captain Troude who beat off an attack by HMS Venerable, leaving the British 74 dismasted with 105 casualties and in need of assistance from her comrades as the Frenchman made his escape

However the final casualty bill tells its own tale with overall Allied casualties amounting to more than 2,000 men in killed, wounded and captured with the British force suffering 119 killed and wounded in return.

Argonauta, for her part avoided combat and arrived in Cadiz the next morning with no casualties or damage.

The Argonauta would continue to operate from Cadiz for the rest of the war escorting mercury and gold convoys between Vera Cruz and Havana and her home port before being laid up there in ordinary in 1803 following the Peace of Amiens,

With the recommencement of war Argonauta was recommissioned in December 1804 and with the evolving Napoleonic plan for the invasion of Britain the following year, newly coppered and careened in January 1805,  joined what would become the Trafalgar campaign in April of that year with the arrival of Villeneuve's French fleet from Toulon, having evaded the attentions of Vice-Admiral Nelson's Mediterranean squadron and prompting high praise from the normally pessimistic French Admiral, describing the Argonauta as 'excellent'.

Spanish Admiral Frederico Gravina

On the 9th of April, the Combined fleet set sail from Cadiz heading to the Caribbean with Admiral Frederico Gravina hoisting his pennant aboard the Argonauta under the command of Flag-Captain Rafael de Hore, arriving in Fort de France Bay, Martinique on the 14th May.

Following the taking of the British held Diamond Rock off Martinique, Villeneuve set in motion the next stage of his orders, to head back to Europe with his twenty ships of the line on the 11th June only to be intercepted by Vice Admiral Sir Robert Calder's Rochefort squadron directed to their station off Cape Finisterre by the insightful command of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, guessing the intent of the Combined Fleet to get into the Bay of Biscay and raise the blockades on the French and Spanish ports along the coast.

Sir Robert Calder, pictured here in 1797 as a Rear Admiral - Lemuel Francis Abbott (National Maritime Museum)
History to my mind has been rather harsh on Sir Robert Calder who failed to gain the crushing victory the nation desired, that job left to Nelson, but who did prevent a very serious threat of invasion by forcing Admiral Villeneuve to abandon his orders to bring a forty plus ship fleet into the Channel

In what would turn out to be a controversial battle that would put paid to Napoleon's plan of mustering a large Franco-Spanish fleet in the Channel, Sir Robert Calder spotted the Combined Fleet in foggy conditions at about 12.00 p.m. on the 22nd July 1805 and brought on an action that succeeded in forcing Villeneuve to turn south eventually ending back in Cadiz, but failed to destroy a significant number of his ships to remove the the threat his fleet posed, once and for all.

Admiral Sir Robert Calder's Action off Cape Finisterre 23rd July 1805 - William Anderson,_23_July_1805_RMG_BHC0540.tiff
Calder's flagship Prince of Wales is depicted in the centre foreground with the misty conditions, made worse by clouds of gun smoke that characterised the battle making it extremely difficult for both sides to conduct accurate gunnery.

The two fleets manoeuvred themselves close enough to exchange broadsides through the murk at about 5.30 p.m. as Captain Alan Gardner of HMS Hero on his own initiative and responding to Calder's signal to 'Engage More Closely' turned to port (larboard) and led the British van on a parallel course with the lead ship in the Allied van, Argonauta; being raked by the Spanish flagship as she turned, but escaping serious damage, apparently because Argonauta was listing to port due to unbalanced stowage in her hold, preventing her lower gun deck from opening fire.

This antique plan of the Battle of Cape Finisterre, gives an idea of how the action unfolded in three movements from the preparation to turn and engage at about 4.30 p.m. to the close of the action at just after 9.00 p.m. leaving two Spanish third rates as prizes. I have added my summary of each movement and highlighted the respective flagships in red blue and yellow together with the position of the two captured ships in black.

Once the turn was completed Gardner opened return fire and the action became general as each opposing ship came up with the fleets swinging onto a south-westerly course.

The mass firing of multiple cannon only added to the foggy murk forcing opposing ships to concentrate the return fire on muzzle flashes in the growing gloom and with the scene becoming more chaotic, Calder signalled to call off the action at about 8.30 p.m.; but with most ships failing to see her signal, the action continued on to past 9 p.m. with the longer line of the Combined Fleet being led by the Spanish seeing them suffer the worst from the exchange of fire and two of their number, San Rafael 80-guns and Firme 74-guns left dismasted to be captured at the close.

Argonauta is reported to have suffered her mizzen and foremast knocked down together with six killed and five wounded after her battle with Hero who in turn had serious damage to her foremast and forespars together with the loss of one killed and four wounded. Overall, as well as losing the two ships, Villeneuve's fleet had lost 476 men killed and wounded and he reported another 800 men laid low from sickness, whilst Calder's squadron lost 39 killed and 159 wounded with most of the damage caused to the ships rigging, masts and spars.

Arogonauta sports her metal deck with two bow chasers mounted on the forecastle adding to the ferocity of her figurehead.

Of course both sides claimed a victory, with Calder going so far to describe it as 

'A very decisive action which lasted upward of four hours, when I found it necessary to bring up the squadron to cover the captured ships.'

However Villeneuve had a completely different impression of matters when he conveniently ignored his losses stating;

'The enemy then made off. He had several vessels crippled aloft and the field of battle remained ours. Cries of joy and victory were heard from all our ships.' (except, no doubt, from Firme and San Rafeal!)

Who said 'Fake News' was anything new? It takes me back to the good old days of the First Gulf War with Radio Baghdad telling everyone about how well they were all doing with bomb explosions going off in the background of their broadcasts!

San Rafael in the thick of the action at the Battle of Cape Finisterre 23rd July 1805, before finally striking, dismasted to Sir Robert Calder's squadron.

Either way, Napoleon's invasion was off and he made plans to march on Austria, as the Combined Fleet happily sailed into El Ferrol for repairs and recuperation before heading south to Cadiz in August, whilst Calder was apparently not fooling anyone and would look forward to a court-martial to clear his name and reputation, for actually doing a reasonable job at a strategic level in conditions that did not allow for a much better result probably.

The metal deck seen from her starboard stern quarter displays realigned signal lockers on her poop and a unique spar deck arrangement for her boat stowage.

When the Argonauta left Cadiz with the Combined Fleet on the 20th October she sailed as part of Admiral Gravina's Squadron of Observation, the largest formation in the Combined Fleet with twelve ships of the line and two frigates with Gravina, second in command, flying his pennant aboard the Principe Asturias 112-guns and with Argonauta under a new commander Captain Antonio Pareja y Serrano de Leon, who had previous combat experience of a fleet action having commanded the frigate Perla at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.

Captain Antonio Pareja y Serrano de Leon - Naval Museum of Madrid

At just after midday when action commenced as HMS Royal Sovereign broke through the Allied line, the Argonauta was sailing slightly behind the lee quarter of her French namesake Argonaute 74-guns and to the lee of the San Ildefonso 74-guns, engaging ships in Admiral Collingwood's lee column as they closed.

The seventh British ship to penetrate the Allied line was the Achille 74-guns under Captain Richard King who passed astern of Montanes 74-guns at about 12.45 p.m. and raking her before luffing up on her rear starboard quarter and pouring in several pistol shot range broadsides that would cause the death of her commander Captain Don Jose Alcedo  and the wounding of his second in command together with 20 killed and 29 wounded.

My interpretation of the Montanes, the first Spanish ship engaged by HMS Achille

After this half hour exchange of fire, the Achille turned away to go to the aid of the hard pressed HMS Belleisle 74-guns but before he could make headway, the Argonauta appeared out of the smoke on the starboard side and Captain King ordered the Achille hove to on the Argonauta's larboard bow to commence an hour long exchange of broadsides, with Captain Pareja leaving a report of his experience of being on the receiving end of such a lengthy cannonade;

'At this hour my ship had all the guns on the quarter-deck and the poop dismounted, a great number of guns in the batteries were out of action, as much on account of the pieces (being damaged) as from want of crews, the result of the numerous dead and wounded among them. . . . 

The whole rigging was utterly destroyed. so there were no shrouds left to the masts - save one to the main-mast - and they were threatening to fall at any minute, being shot through. In this situation it was very evident that the ship could make but slight and feeble resistance. . . 

With these inexpressible feelings I was taken below to have my wounds dressed. . . my second having sent half an hour later to inform me that over and above the injuries we had already sustained, the ship was making much water . . . and had lost her rudder . . .

At this point Pareja gave his second-in-command authority to strike, with Argonauta shutting her lower gun decks and ceasing firing with the battered ship finally being boarded by 1st Lieutenant Owen Royal Marines from HMS Belleisle after the Achille having demolished Montanes and Argonauta found herself embroiled in yet another close range scrap with the French Berwick 74-guns taking another half hour exchange to demolish the French ship as well leaving her with 75 dead including her captain and 125 wounded.

Argonauta had suffered in a similar fashion with 100 killed and 203 men wounded, and it seems her damage below the waterline was severe as she foundered on the 26th October after being taken in tow by HMS Polyphemus.

At Trafalgar Argonauta would have been armed with 30 x 36 pounder long guns on her lower deck, 32 x 18-pdrs on her upper deck 16 x 8-pdrs on her quarterdeck and forecastle together with 12 x 30-pdr howitzers, some of which were mounted on the poop.

Her crew was over compliment with 798 men aboard composed of 458 naval personnel, 279 infantry and 61 marine artillery, 43 percent being soldiers.

Sources consulted for this post:
The Trafalgar Companion - Mark Adkins
The Battle of Trafalgar - Geoffrey Bennett

That concludes this series of posts looking at the Third Rates of Renown and next in the All at Sea project I will show the results of the recently completed work on the gunboats, 64-gun and 80-gun third rate conversions. In addition I have another book review and I plan to take a look at a recent Kickstarter I supported a few months ago, Terrain Essentials by Mel Bose, the Terrain Tutor and his book about making Wargames Terrain.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Ray, I enjoyed putting her together.


  2. Excellent story! You are doing a terrific work!

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you are enjoying the project and your comments are much appreciated.