Saturday, 14 November 2020

All at Sea - Spanish Third Rates of Renown (San Justo)

As with the French 74-gun Argonaute previously covered, it seems to me that the choice of the San Justo as a Spanish 'Third Rate of Renown' is an interesting one on the part of Warlord Games. 

I suppose the definition of renown being 'known about' or 'fame' might be stretched a bit to cover the service career of the San Justo, but when included as part of a group of ships that include Bellerophon, Tonnant and Formidable, it becomes challenging to imagine what the criteria was for this title and in certain cases I started to wonder if Warlord were stretching the definition to include 'infamous' as well.

Anyway, whatever the criteria for her inclusion, the San Justo enjoyed a long service career in the Armada Espanola from her launch on the 11th November 1779 at the Cartagena naval yard as the last of the five ships of the San Joaquin class, all built in the same yard and designed by Francisco Gautier.

Commissioning and joining the fleet on the 16th November under her first commander Captain Francisco Urreiztieta she joined the squadron under the command of Admiral Don Juan de Langara operating from Cartagena as part of Spanish efforts to block British access to Gibraltar, as Spain sought to take advantage of the Royal Navy's overstretched resources committed to the American War of Independence; the fortress rock was under siege by Spanish forces and it would be the cause of San Justo's initiation into battle when she formed part of Langara's squadron that met Admiral Sir George Rodney's fleet escorting a British relief convoy to the beleaguered British fortress in The First Battle of Cape St Vincent, otherwise known as the 'Moonlight Battle' fought on the 16th January 1780.
The Moonlight Battle of Cape St Vincent 16th January 1780 - Richard Paton
Admiral Rodney's fleet in 'general chase' as Spanish Admiral Langara attempted to break contact off Cape St Vincent, showing the moment the Santo Domingo exploded during the early stages of the battle, with the lack of any formation that a chase brings about clearly visible in this picture. 

With the two groups spotting each other at about 13.00 on the 16th January just south of Cape St Vincent and preparing to offer battle, Langara suddenly realised the size of Rodney's fleet, eighteen ships of the line against nine Spanish, and decided to attempt to break contact making use of the hazy weather accompanied by occasional squalls. 

However Rodney ordered a general chase, with ships pursuing at the best speed they could make irrespective of formation and after two hours managed to engage the rearmost Spanish ship, the Santo Domingo, at 16.00 which blew up after a forty minute engagement with HMS Edgar, Marlborough and Ajax with the loss of all but one of her crew.

Admiral Juan de Langara y Huarte

The chase would continue into the night and see a further four Spanish ships captured and another two captured and lost, with one of them being destroyed by the British after finding it to be too heavily damaged and the other retaken by its Spanish crew and sailing into Cadiz, with the Spanish force suffering the loss of 2,500 men killed, wounded or captured to the the British losing just 134 killed, wounded and captured and the supply convoy safely escorted into Gibraltar on the 19th January.

The San Justo, although not listed in Langara's order of battle, is reported in Beatson's Naval and Military Memoirs as escaping with light damage from the action and entered Cadiz with the other survivors of Langara's squadron.

Following repairs to the ship, San Justo she was assigned to the Spanish main fleet under Admiral Luis de Cordova and would be under his command for the rest of the American War of Independence seeing action on the 9th of August 1780 as the British overstretch finally paid dividends and Cordova's fleet was able to capture the majority of ships in a British outbound convoy from Portsmouth of sixty-three merchant ships carrying supplies and stores together with troops bound for the West Indies.

The British convoy of sixty-three ships is taken by Cordova's Spanish fleet 9th August 1780 losing fifty-five captured.

Driving off the small British escort of one 74-gun ship and two frigates, Cordova's thirty-one ships and six frigates easily rounded up the stricken convoy with just five of the merchantmen and the three warships getting away.

Admiral Luis de Cordova y Cordova

Following a period of escort work herself, the San Justo together with the Spanish fleet headed north and a year later in August 1781 was operating in consort with the French fleet under Admiral Luc Urbain de Bouexic Comte de Guichon in the English Channel as the Bourbon alliance threatened to initiate an invasion of the British Isles, but with those plans coming to nought, was back in Cadiz a year later.

By 1782 the American War on land was drawing to a close but the naval war between the European powers was reaching a climax as the Royal Navy gradually gained ascendancy in its struggle to maintain a strong British negotiating position at the upcoming peace talks.

Relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe 11th October 1782 - Richard Paton
HMS Victory is seen at centre, Lord Howe's flagship, escorting the British relief convoy into Gibraltar with the Franco Spanish fleet at anchor in the background in Algeciras Bay.

For Spain that struggle was still very much focussed around the repossession of Gibraltar and its efforts to starve the British garrison into submission, leading to San Justo and the thirty-four ship Spanish fleet under Cordova clash with yet another British relief convoy escorted by an equally sized British fleet under Admiral Richard Howe and the ensuing Battle of Cape Spartel.

Howe wishing to avoid battle and making best use of his newest advantage over his enemies, namely coppered ships was able to dictate the terms of the limited fighting as his ships were able to outrun Cordova's, despite the Spanish having the wind gauge, thus enabling the convoy to get under the protective guns of the Rock and allowing the British fleet to disengage the next day to return to British waters.

No precise details of specific ships casualties are recorded for the Spanish but with just 276 killed and wounded on the British side and 360 on the Spanish from the long range gunnery exchanges, San Justo and her comrades were very likely lightly affected.

With the end of the American War in 1783, San Justo was sent to El Ferrol where she was disarmed and put in ordinary but was hastily rearmed and made ready for possible conflict in 1790 with the Nootka Sound Crisis and the Anglo-Spanish dispute over trading and navigation rights on the Pacific West Coast of North America, that saw both countries organise their naval forces for a possible conflict over the issue and thus seeing the respective fleets already in an advanced state of readiness with the events in France that would culminate in the French Revolutionary War of 1793.

With Britain and Spain in alliance at the start of the war, San Justo under Captain Francisco Ordonez was part of the Anglo-Spanish fleet that entered Toulon in November 1793, back under the command of Admiral Langara operating with the Spanish Mediterranean squadron..

The chaos of the Allied retreat from Toulon in 1793 is well illustrated in this picture with the Allied fleet that included the San Justo preparing to depart from the bay in the background

The San Justo would continue her assignment with the Spanish Mediterranean Squadron throughout the French Revolutionary War and a change of alliance from Britain to France, operating from Cartagena and Cadiz, until sent back to El Ferrol in 1802 after the Peace of Amiens, to be put back in ordinary.

With the resumption of war in 1803, Spain was preparing to re-join the conflict with Britain and rearming her navy, which would see the San Justo back in Cadiz in January 1805 being careened and coppered and from where she would join Admiral Pierre Villeneuve's Combined Fleet that sailed the following October prior to the Battle of Trafalgar.

The approximate position of the San Justo at the Battle of Trafalgar at just after midday on the 21st October 1805

At Trafalgar the San Justo would be under the command of Captain Don Miguel Gaston who was born in 1776 in Cartagena de Indias, in the modern day Republic of Columbia,  and had previously served aboard the San Isidro 74-guns in the early 1790's as well as being a former student of hydrographcs at Cadiz.

Hold the Line - Anthony Cowland
 HMS Victory and Temeraire race each other towards the Allied line at Trafalgar, with the latter reportedly taking fire from San Justo as she closed.

During the battle, the San Justo was part of the Allied Centre and at one point directly astern and leeward of Admiral Villeneuve's flagship Redoutable, opening fire on HMS Temeraire as she bore down on the Allied line, however the Spanish ship's involvement in the later exchanges seems to have been very limited as, despite being at the centre of the action, she would escape the battle with slight damage to her hull and masts and just seven wounded, the lowest number of casualties in the Combined Fleet and with only two ships in the British fleet, Polyphemus and Prince having fewer losses.

Admiral Frederic Gravina author of the after battle report below that makes mention of the
San Justo, among others of the Allied fleet that 'drove off the Enemy'

The state of the San Justo seems rather to cast doubt on the after-battle report from Spanish Admiral Gravina who appears to have missed the report of San Justo's casualties and damage when he describes her role in the battle;

'It wanted eight minutes to noon when an English three-decker broke through the centre of our line, being seconded in this manoeuvre by the Vessels which followed in its wake. The other leading ships of the enemy's columns did the same. One of them passed down our rear, a third laid herself between the Achille and the Ildefonso, and from this moment the action was nothing but so many sanguinary single combats within pistol-shot: the greater part of them being between the whole of the Enemy's Fleet and half of ours; several boardings necessarily took place. 

I do not possess the data requisite for giving your Highness a detailed and particular account of these single fights, nor can I speak with certainty of the movements of the Van, which, I am informed, tacked at the commencement of the battle in order to support those who were assailed. I can, however, confidently assure you that every ship, French as well as Spanish, which fought in my sight, performed its duty to the untmost, and that this Ship, after a terrific contest of four hours with three or four of the Enemy's Vessels, its rigging destroyed, its sails shot through , its masts and topmasts riddled, and every respect in a most deplorable condition, was most seasonably relieved by the San Justo, a Spanish, and the Neptune, a French ship, which junction drove off the Enemy, and enabled the Rayo, the Montanes, the Asis, and the San Leandro, all of which had suffered severely, to unite with the other French ships, that were just as bad a plight.

As soon as this vessel found itself free of the Enemy, it directed the ships which had joined company to assist such vessels as were in need of their aid, and at nightfall, the cannonade having ceased on both sides, the Themis frigate was ordered to tow us towards Cadiz bay.'

It would appear that Captain Gaston may have sought to set the record a little straighter over the performance of his ship at Trafalgar, going to great efforts after the battle to stress his crew's lack of training which might explain the discretion implied by the damage and casualties his ship suffered.

Indeed the state of preparedness of the San Justo might also be gauged by the comment from Admiral Villeneuve on the 8th of October when he had inspected the ship, stating it was one of three Spanish ships that 'were barely out of the dockyard'.

Following Trafalgar and the subsequent estrangement of the Franco-Spanish alliance in 1808, San Justo would continue to serve throughout the remainder of the Napoleonic War taking part in the defence of Cadiz during the French siege of 1809 and escorting and moving supplies and specie from the Spanish colonies in support of the war effort against Napoleon, with the ship ending her service in the breakers yard in 1824.

At Trafalgar San Justo was armed with 28 x 24-pounder long guns on her lower deck, 30 x 18-pdrs on her upper deck, 12 x 8-pdrs on her quarterdeck and 6 x 8-pdrs on her forecastle, together with 1 x 32-pdr howitzer and 6 x 28-pdr carronades.

Her crew numbers were above compliment with 694 men of which 427 were naval personnel, 207 infantry and 60 marine artillerymen.

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

Next up: Steve and I finished our most recent game of Unhappy King Charles on Vassal and I have a post covering our thoughts about the game, another book review covering the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and the final Third Rate of Renown, looking at the Spanish 80-gun Argonauta.


  1. Beautifully done! Do Spanish ships seem to be a bit under gunned compared to contemporary French and British ships?

    1. Thank you William.
      Yes the Spanish ships are described by Spanish observers as being well built and designed to travel the long distance voyages that policing their large empire required, a rather similar principle to British design ideas, but the Spanish also wanted to keep their ships spacious and more commodious than the British and thus tended to have fewer and less heavier gun arrangements.

      In addition, the Spanish and the French to a lesser degree were using howitzers aboard ship to lob shells on to enemy vessels, despite the implied difficulties in accuracy and the risk of fire on the ship doing the shooting, something that, following the loss of the L'Orient at the Nile, caused the French to speed up their move to using Obusiers, Franco-Spanish carronades, instead.

      Thus with more and often heavier guns, more carronades and better trained crews the British ships were often more than a match for their Spanish counterparts.