Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Admiral Satan, The Life & Campaigns of Suffren - Roderick Cavaliero


I first read this book in the early nineties soon after it was published in 1994 and I see from the price tab on the inside of the dust jacket that I paid the princely sum of £29.95 which was 'a few bob' back in those days', which prompted me to see how much a second hand copy would be today, given that it is long out of print and to my astonishment found six second-hand copies on Amazon going from anywhere between £250 to £350.

Of course as a military history fan, and I suspect I'm not alone in this, I don't view my books for the monetary value they may or may not have but enjoy having them for themselves and the information and insights they give into a particular subject and I tend to reread and consult my books many times after the first read to inform my hobby and enjoy the sheer pleasure of reading a good book.

It would seem that books in English about the French naval commander are about as rare as hens teeth which might explain why this particular book, the first biography of Suffren in English, has such a high second-hand value, providing as it does a detailed insight into the character and life of perhaps the best French naval commander of the age of sail, but also one respected and admired not only by his countrymen but also by his enemies as well.

La Chevalier de Suffren - Alexandre Roslin
A rather romanticised image of de Suffren, thought to be seen here in his forties and before he became the very corpulent man displayed in his portraits from his later years.

Pierre Andre de Suffren was born on the 29th July 1729 to one of the oldest French aristocratic families in Aix en Provence, near Marseille in the south of France and like many of the nobility of this part of the world was a member of a very unique aristocratic club, The Knights of Malta, tasked with defending the western Mediterranean from the advance of Islam and more practically the ravages of the Barbary Corsairs; with him beginning his apprenticeship to the sea at the tender age of fourteen and induction into the College for the Gardes Marines in Toulon, King Louis XIV equivalent to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, for the training of future naval officers.

Like many of the Great Captains, it was an early experience of how not to command that had its most beneficial effects on the journey to becoming a great leader and Suffren's experiences as a young French naval officer would see him captured twice by the British, an experience that would cause him to develop his talents from his observations and fired by the dispair of being a prisoner and his desire to have revenge for his experience on France's traditional enemy on land and sea.

For me, it was the descriptions of these early pivotal experiences that I found the most interesting, to see what shaped the man and his determination to have the French navy, certainly under his command, move from the passive defence to the aggressive attack and develop his ideas and intent to destroy the enemy fleet. 

The other really interesting point described by Cavaliero is his account of the French navy that Suffren served in, was its very strict code of aristocratic entitlement to command, particularly among the members of the Gardes Marines, which engendered still further a sense of self entitlement based on social rank rather than any form of meritocracy. Thus men of any competence and ability, but coming from outside of this very elite club, found progression within the French navy to senior command difficult if not impossible.

This description stands in bleak contrast to the British Royal Navy that also played host to advancement based on social rank and a case of who you knew rather than what you knew, but advancement in the Royal Navy was never so elitist and men with talent and ability from more humble middle ranking families could with patronage progress to the highest ranks of command based on their ability and could raise their status through the prize system of rewarding success and encouraging an aggressive intent broadly among its commanders and men by sharing the rewards to all involved.

Suffren would also see his first battle as a fourteen year old Garde-Marine, that was to make a deep impression on the young man.

The Battle of Toulon fought in February 1744 during the War of Austrian Succession was regarded as a fiasco in British circles, seeing as it did the engagement of the Spanish Mediterranean squadron, later supported by the neutral Toulon based French squadron, by the British Mediterranean squadron in a disorganised attack that left the latter force badly damaged and forced to retreat back to its base in Minorca surrendering control of the area to Spanish forces who afterwards successfully reinforced their army operating in Italy.

Plan of the Battle of Toulon 11th - 22nd February 1744

The aftermath of this inconclusive battle would see the British court-martial two admirals, ten captains and four lieutenants, with the commander Admiral Sir Thomas Mathews convicted of the charges of poor planning and conducting an ill-tempered and unwise attack and being dismissed from the service

However from Suffren's perspective Mathews had been let down after his van squadron had failed to close on the Spanish centre and when he, leading the attack by example, found himself poorly supported by his junior commander Rear Admiral Richard Lestock who had let his rear van fall back some eight miles and then attacked the neutral French squadron bringing up the rear, so failing to be in position to support his commander who was rightly, in Suffren's opinion, trying to batter his way into the Spanish centre and properly supported could have destroyed his opponents.

The attack made by the British flagship HMS Namur 90-guns running down to attack a ship twenty guns heavier than herself supported by HMS Berwick 70-guns, under the command of a certain Captain Edward Hawke made a great impression on the young Suffren and reinforced his opinion of the defects of the doctrine of the line and the result of not attacking in force and with decision.

It would be a meeting with Rear Admiral Sir Edward Hawke leading his squadron at the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre on the 25th October 1747 and the shock of capture that would be the next significant learning point for the young French officer serving aboard the Monarque 74-guns and confirmation of the principle of attacking in force and with decision.

The Second Battle of Cape Finisterre 25th October 1747 - Pierre Julian Gilbert 

Admiral Henri-Francois des Herbiers had been ordered to escort 250 transports to Canada and left Rochefort with his squadron of eight ships of the line on the night of the 15th October 1747.

The French force was spotted at dawn on the 25th October by Hawke's squadron which had been patrolling in search of them and he quickly brought his ships over the horizon revealing his force of fourteen ships of the line causing des Herbiers to order the convoy to scatter whilst he put his squadron into line of battle to receive the enemy threat.

To his horror he suddenly saw the British squadron divide and begin to double the French line from the rear to its van and Suffren, aboard the third ship in the line was to experience the 'bitter misery' of being engaged from both sides as des Herbiers 'gave himself up to be crushed' to save his convoy.

Suffren would recount in later years the detail of the action with the Neptune 70-guns, Fougueux 64-guns, Severn 56-guns and Monarque assailed by eleven ships to windward and four to leeward, with action joined at 11.30; Hawke reduced the Severn; at 14.30 Fougueux hauled down her colours; at 15.00 Monarque, with her captain dead, surrendered to the Nottingham and Edinburgh and fifteen minutes later the Neptune also with her captain killed struck to the Yarmouth.

The French rear had collapsed under the attack and within another two hours Hawke had taken the Trident 64-guns and Terrible 74-guns leaving just the flagship Tonnant 80-guns and the Intrepide 74-guns to escape into the darkness with the latter having lost all her topmasts and had her sails cut to ribbons, leaving Suffren captured and on his way to England as a prisoner to await exchange.

The Capture of the Lys and Alcide, 8th June 1755 - Royal Museums Greenwich
HMS Defiance can be seen firing into the Lys, beyond them HMS Dunirk is in action with the Alcide with a British merchantman seen approaching on the left.

The next description we get of the shaping of the young Ensign Suffren is just prior to the start of the Seven Years War, and of him recently back from an Atlantic foray and now under the command of Admiral de Bois de la Motte aboard the Dauphin Royal, part of the eighteen ship expedition to take reinforcements of troops to French Canada in 1755 that evaded the attempts at interception by British Admiral Boscawen apart from three ships that included the Dauphin Royal; which became separated from the fleet in fog and saw two of them, the Lys and the Alcide, taken by Boscawen, leaving the Dauphin Royal and Suffren to return to Brest with news of the action and a following declaration of war by both countries soon after that saw the actual commencement of the Seven Years War.

The disillusioned young ensign wrote soon after to his cousin in Marseilles suggesting he purchase him a vessel for him to ply a privateering voyage off the coast of America, suggesting that privateers were not looked for off the coast and that he could do more useful damage to the enemy.

However Suffren stayed in the service and was promoted to Lieutenant aboard the Orphee 64-guns, part of the French squadron in Toulon under La Galissonniere and part of a surprise attack on Minorca.

The British and French met on the 20th May 1756 and it was from the quarterdeck of the Orphee leading the French rear division that Suffren had a grandstand view of the infamous battle that cost Admiral Byng his life, executed on his own quarterdeck for his perceived failures.

The Departure of the French Fleet for the Expedition to Port Mahon, Minorca 10th April 1756 - Nicolas Ozanne
The French 80-gun ship Foudroyant shown in action as part of the fleet commanded by the Marquis de la Galissonniere which included Suffren aboard Orphee 64-guns

As Caviliero describes, La Galissonniere's sole objective was to protect the Duc de Richelieu's expeditionary force on the island thus seeing him take a lee position to Byng's fleet, presenting, as it soon occurred to Suffren, the perfect opportunity for the British admiral to run down upon the French line against selected targets doing irreparable damage to those French ships before those astern could come to their assistance.

Early copper plate engraving of the Battle of Minorca - First position of the British and French Fleets at 14.00 on 20th May 1756.

However, as Suffren observed, Byng chose to advance obliquely with the wind gauge to engage in a classic line versus line action with his van arriving first into range having its rigging and masts shot to pieces as it advanced on the leading French ships firing on the uproll. Indeed to Suffren's eye it was only the incompetence of La Galissonniere for not taking advantage of the shot up British van by tacking to windward of it and finishing it off, but instead continued his course that allowed Byng to break off to lose not only Minorca but his own life.

As the author highlights 'La Galissonniere had acted with perfect correctness by the book: his fleet was there to escort the expedition to Minorca and protect it while it was there. This could be served by keeping Byng at a distance, not by destroying him.'  going on to point out that; 'A French admiral could say, without fear of reproach, that if, despite every care and precaution I am attacked by the enemy, I shall fight with all glory possible. But I shall do better to avoid action.'
Battle of Lagos Bay 18th August 1759 - Richard Paton
HMS Namur, Boscawen's flagship can be seen, third from left as the British squadron closes to contact.

The next action Suffren found himself in only reinforced his opinion of how badly the effects of this passive approach could impact on a naval force's ability to carry out it's missions when faced by an aggressive enemy.

In August 1759 Suffren was serving aboard the Ocean 80-guns and flagship of Admiral Comte de la Clue's Toulon squadron which had spent six months cooped up in the Mediterranean base due to the blockade imposed by British Admiral Sir Edward Boscowan who was finally forced to break off and return to Gibraltar in July to re-supply.

Under orders to join forces with the Brest squadron and escort an urgent convoy to Canada, de la Clue attempted to break out past Gibraltar, hoping to evade Boscawen's observation, but was spotted by a British frigate and the fifteen ship French force, reduced to seven following the rest losing contact the previous night, found itself being chased by Boscawen's eighteen strong squadron.

A  running battle ensued as Boscawen ordered his fastest ships to press on while the others came up as best they could and by 14.30 on the 17th August the Centaur 74-guns was engaged losing half her crew all her topmasts and her hull riddled with shot, in a four hour fight before finally striking.

Her action looked likely to allow the other French ships to break off, all be it with de la Clue, losing his leg in the fighting, forced to move his flag from the Ocean following her battering from HMS Namur, but seeing the surviving French ships make their way into Lagos Bay and the sanctuary of neutral Portuguese waters.

However Boscawen, believing correctly that it would be easier for the British government to apologise for a breach of Portuguese neutrality rather than for France to replace its lost ships pressed his attack and after a few hours fighting had taken two of them and left two others as burning wrecks, including the Ocean and with Suffren taken prisoner by the British for a second time.

Thus we have the formative years of  Pierre-Andre de Suffren mapped out in the first two chapters of part one of the book which then, after covering a period in the wilderness for Suffren as he contemplated a life commanding the Mediterranean galley fleet of Malta against corsairs on the North African coast,  goes on to look at the continued effects of the French approach to naval warfare on and into the American War of Independence; with Suffren rejoining the French navy and seeing the worst of its system continuing under the tutelage of the Comte D'Estaing a former soldier turned sailor for the campaign to Rhode Island and St Lucia in 1778 followed by further failure and recriminations with American allies at Grenada and Charleston the following year.

Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruter 1667 - Ferdinand Bol (National Maritime Museum)
The great Dutch admiral who caused a lot of problems for the English navy in the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century was very much a role model for the young Suffren and inspiration for the campaign he planned to take against the British in the Indian Ocean from 1781.

Desperate for a chance to put into action and demonstrate to the French authorities and wider navy his thoughts of how to take the battle back to the British in a more aggressive approach to naval warfare based on his own experiences and on that of his personal hero Michiel de Ruter, Suffren finally found himself in the right place at the right time.

Comte D'Estang, who on his return home had recommended Suffren to the French command as an officer with great potential and promise for higher command, was replaced as the French revised their naval strategy against Britain under a new regime headed by Naval Secretary of State Castries.

Charles Eugene Gabriel de la Croix, marquis de Castries and Marshal of France - Joseph Boze
Castries was appointed Secretary of State of the Navy on the 13th October 1780 overseeing the reorganisation of the fleet and a new naval strategy to better support the Americans and blockade the bulk of the British Royal Navy in home waters. With Dutch entry into the war and the threat to French possessions in India should the Dutch colony at the Cape fall into British hands, Castries needed a commander to take a French expedition to the Indies.

Appointed by Castries on the 4th of March 1781, leapfrogging thirty-nine captains ahead of him in the lists, Suffren landed the command to take five ships via the Cape with French troop reinforcements for its Dutch garrison, to join the squadron of Comte d'Orves based in Ile de France and would be under his command for operations against the British squadron under Admiral Sir Edward Hughes and in support of French troops fighting in alliance with Haidar Ali Khan against the British held confederacies of Bombay and Madras.  

Events would take a hand with the early death of d'Orves that would see Suffren confirmed as his successor to lead the French expedition, as Cavaliero's book recounts it in great detail covering the battles of Porto Praya, 16th April 1781, Sadras, 17th February 1782, Provedien, 12th April 1782, Negapatam, 6th July 1782, Trincomali, 3rd September 1782, and the final action, Cuddalore, 20th June 1783.

These battles made Suffren famous and are well documented elsewhere, but the detail that Cavaliero brings to the account that links them is Suffren's struggle to master his command as he comes up against the resistance of his captains from the Gardes Marines to simply comply with his instructions but seemingly go out of their way to frustrate his plans almost at every turn; to his energy brought to the problems of being a minor theatre commander working with a lack of supplies, dispatched with poorly fitted out and old ships, against an enemy with a major base for fitting ships out and having their fleet coppered.

Coupled with these issues we see a commander leading from the front and attacking with the wind looking to have his ships mimic the tactics demonstrated to him by Sir Edward Hawke at Cape Finisterre in 1747 by doubling the rear of the British squadron often only to find that these tactics were beyond the capabilities of his captains and their crews used to operating in line ahead and more comfortable mimicking the tactics of Sir Thomas Mathews at Toulon in 1744.

Suffren comes across as a brave commander and an insightful one about naval tactics if not exactly an innovator, with Mahan describing Suffren's view of tactics as 'a veil for timidity'; but although he understood well the Nelsonian principle that the prime task of a naval force was to destroy that of the enemy he was no 'driller of ships',  unable to train his men and lead his subordinates to be able to operate in a way they would know their commander would want them to do in any situation where they were left to their own decision.

The Battle of Sadras 17 February 1782 - Dominique Serres
The first of Suffren's five battles fought against Sir Edward Hughes in the Indian Ocean 

As the title of the book suggests, Suffren could be a hard task master, nicknamed 'Admiral Satan' by his Lascar sailors for his sometimes brutal command of them and with Cavaliero describing him as a bully to his captains, breaking the careers of three of them, and rightly it seems to me, sending them home in disgrace and mentioning an anecdote of his command style at Cuddalore when he moved his flag to the frigate Cleopatre and, when seeing a ship slow to get into her position, bellowed across the water with a speaking trumpet, 

'Get into place! If you are afraid of English bullets, then you will feel some French ones.'

He was not a tactical innovator and was not looking to break the line and bring on a Nelsonian pell-mell battle but often simply to make best use of the wind gauge to attack the weakest part of the enemy line and preferably double it and overcome it before other parts of the enemy line could come to its succour, but it stands as a sad testament to his record that the battle where his squadron performed best was in its final meeting off Cuddalore where he was forced to settle for a straight forward line versus line engagement, something his ships crews were perfectly familiar with and thus able to give a bloody, for them and the enemy, but inconclusive account of themselves.

The Battle of Negapatam, 6 July 1782 - Dominic Serres (Royal Museums Greenwich)
The battles fought between Suffren and Hughes were hard fought with casualties at Negapatam amounting to 77 dead and 233 wounded on the British side to 178 dead and 602 wounded on the French with the carnage reading more like an account of a battle between twenty to thirty ships aside rather than the dozen in each force that fought, with for example Rodney's casualties at the Saintes only amounting to 243 killed and 816 wounded in comparison.

Sadly for Suffren, he was no Nelson and his ships, captains and crews were nowhere near the effective weapon that Nelson would wield at the Nile, Copenhagen or Trafalgar, but it should be no surprise that on the eve of Trafalgar Nelson was rereading his copy of a naval treatise by a Scottish Laird, John Clerk of Eldin illustrating the tactics adopted by Suffren at Sadras and Provedien as the right ones to have adopted and which the British admiral was soon to demonstrate the efficacy of in his own plan of attack.  

However Villeneuve and his Combined Fleet were a poor comparison to Sir Edward Hughes and the British squadron in the Indian Ocean under whose command Suffren faced an equally determined enemy commander with captains, crews and ships often superior to the French in sailing and gunnery ability and able to easily give as good as they got knowing that supplies and reinforcements were more available to them than their enemy, but with Suffren making up the difference and in the end causing a close run thing for the British possessions in India.

The threat that Suffren posed and the scare he caused made sure that India became a priority in British strategy for the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic War and explains the effort made to stop French activity to invade Egypt, an early assault to retake the Cape from the Dutch and the British offensives in India to finally crush the Mysorreans under Haidar Ali's son and successor, Tipu Sultan and later the Maratha Confederacy and the campaigns of a certain young Sir Arthur Wellesley, to ensure no French support for Indian allies against the British colony.

The Battle of Cuddalore 2oth June 1783 - Auguste Jugelet
The last of five furious battles between Suffren and Hughes, fought after the peace had been signed

Likewise the French desperately searched for another Suffren to lead their naval effort in the wars that followed with the French administration and later Napoleon selecting men who had served under him in the Indian campaign; men such as a young frigate captain, Lieutenant Villaret-Joyeuse who would have a brief moment in command against Admiral Howe in the Battle of the Glorious First of June; and the young Charles Alexandre Leon Durand Linois who as an Admiral would be sent back into the Indian Ocean to recreate the effect of Suffren in that theatre for a desperate Napoleon, only to have the French commander plumb new depths of incompetence by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the Battle of Pulo Aura in 1804, and his mistaking Indiamen of the British China Fleet for Royal Navy 64-gun third rates; and being driven off before discovering their true identity, which no doubt would have left Suffren turning in his grave had it not been destroyed by a French Revolutionary mob in 1792 (and we think we have problems with statues being pulled down?).

My first encounter with the exploits of Suffren came in the mid eighties with my purchasing of the old Avalon Hill board game 'Iron Men and Wooden Ships' which has a linked campaign of games recreating his battles in the Indian Ocean, and my desire to know more about this French commander prompted me to buy this rather expensive book, but I am very glad I did as it inspired my collection of 1:1200th Langton models based on his campaign and, following this rereading, I am likely to renew that interest later in another scale, so can heartily recommend getting this book should the opportunity arise and the pocket allow.

My 1:1200th Langton Suffren v Hughes collection of models for the refight of Provedien we ran at the Devon Wargames Group in 2014

Admiral Satan, The Life and Campaigns of Suffren is 322 pages from Preface to Index and consists of the following:

List of Illustrations:
Portraits of Suffren, Hughes, Suffren meeting Haidar Ali, Sir Eyre Coote, The Battle of Cuddalore, Indians from the Coast of Malabar by the Mediterranean Shore, Bust of Suffren and a photo of a Letter from Suffren to Grand Master de Rohan 3 January 1777.

List of Maps and Diagrams
The Carnatic, 1779-83
South India and Ceylon

The Battle of Porto Praya, 16 April 1781
The Battle of Sadras, 17 February 1782
The Battle of Provedien, 12 April 1782
The Battle of Negapatam, 6 July 1782
The Battle of Trincomali, 3 September 1782
Cuddalore, 13-15 June 1783
Cuddalore, 16-17 June 1783


Part I: Apprenticeship to Failure
1. Beginnings, 1729 - 47
2. Malta, Minorca and Lagos Bay, 1747-60 
3. War in the Mediterranean, 1760-78
4. Rhode Island and St Lucia, 1778
5. Grenada and Charleston, 1779
6. Straining at the Leash, 1780-81

Part II: Passage to India
7. Stormclouds in India
8. Porto Praya, 16 April 1781
9. Race to the Cape
10. Onward to India

Part III: The Duel of Giants
11. Admiral Hughes
12. The Battle of Sadras, 17 Fenruary 1782 (1)
13. The Battle of Sadras (2)
14. Haggling with Haidar Ali
15. The Battle of Provedien, 12 April 1782
16. The Marquis de Bussy
17. Keeping the Coast
18. Suffren's Shame
19. The Battle of Negapatam, 6 July 1782
20. Suffren Meets Haidar Ali
21. Trincomali Taken
22. The Battle of Trincomali, 3 September 1782
23. Waiting for Bussy
24. Winter 1782-83
25. Bussy in India
26. The Siege of Cuddalore
27. The Fleet to the Rescue
28. The Battle of Cuddalore, 20 June 1783
29. The War is Over
30. The Last of a Crusader

Appendix: The Battle Squadrons

Now out of print, you can still pick this book up, but it will cost a bit more than the normal reference work with the cheapest option I've found recently, a copy for £50 on Ebay, but if you are interested in a classic naval campaign in the age of sail then this book is a must read. 

If like me you might be interested in playing the battles or indeed running a miniatures campaign then David Manley's campaign covering Suffren v Hughes in the Indian Ocean is available on PDF from the Naval Wargames Society.

Sources referred to in this post:

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