Thursday, 29 April 2021

Rodney & the Breaking of the Line - Peter Trew


Having spent the last six weeks or so indulging in some personal development reading, it was a nice change to get back into feeding the mind with an historical tome and Peter Trew's biography of Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney (1718 - 1792) made a very pleasant change, and having finished it this week, I thought I would share my impression of this book.

Any understanding of the success achieved in the glory years of the British Royal Navy during the long wars of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, 1793 to 1815 has to be seen in the light of the years that immediately preceded them and the pivotal conflicts for Great Britain of the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) and American War of Independence (1775 - 1783), the former conflict one of great victories and triumphs on land and sea that left the country a naval and colonial superpower but with powerful European neighbours envious of that success and keen to to take advantage of any opportunity to benefit from future conflict leading to British military overstretch.

Admiral of the Fleet Edward Lord Hawke - Francis Cotes (National Maritime Museum)
Hawke and Boscawen were principle architects of British success at sea in the Seven Years War 

That opportunity came sooner than most probably expected, with the outbreak of war between Britain and her American colonies which split the loyalties of not just the colonies to the crown but also those in Britain who sympathised strongly with the colonists and those who took a harder line in support of the King and the Lord North administration; these tensions only adding to British woes as a list of European nations led by Bourbon France sought to threaten much of the gains made in the previous conflict and moved British focus away from her American colonies to her much more financially important possessions in the Caribbean.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay 20th November 1759 - Richard Paton (National Maritime Museum)
Lord Hawkes victory established British naval pre-eminence and put an end to French aspirations of invading Britain in the Seven Years War.

The success of the Seven Years War and the naval dominance established under the aggressive leadership of Admirals Edward Boscawen and Edward Lord Hawke who established the formation of Britain's mainland defence with the Western Squadron seemed likely to be eclipsed during the American War as a succession of poor naval command appointments, based on political favour rather than command and leadership ability led to a decline in the ability of the Royal Navy to give the nation the war defining victory it needed to turn the course of the conflict in her favour and as Spain and, later Holland joined the conflict, and added to a growing threat of invasion at home or the loss of important Caribbean islands, that defining naval victory became more and more pressing.

The historical cliché, 'cometh the hour, cometh the man' would be an equally fitting title to have been given to this book, which as well as describing the character and career forming years of this great British admiral, highlights very well why he deserves his place among the glittering ranks of the Royal Navy's greatest leaders and his role in giving Britain her war defining victory at the Battle of the Saintes in her darkest hour but also what his victory created in terms of its legacy to the glory years that followed.

In the end, with the American War going in the wrong direction, needs overrode political niceties and Rodney, despite having effectively been on the run in France from his creditors was brought back into the service of his king with the aid of a French noble and assurances of his not having final control over spending decisions under his command.

The fact of the matter was that Rodney was a fighting admiral with an unerring aggressive sense to bring his enemy to battle on his terms and moreover was politically on board with a Tory administration determined to bring the American colonies to heel; but it was his lack of judgment in financial matters that were to be a never ending source of concern to the man as he secured his place in history and Britain's position at the negotiating table with the conclusion of the American War.

But perhaps more importantly it was through his aggressive leadership in naval warfare that he was able to influence future generations of British naval commanders that would give the nation dominance at sea for over a hundred years.

I have to say, I had only a superficial awareness of Rodney coming to this book, mainly from previous reading of histories concerning the naval war during the American War of Independence where his name dominates the second half of that conflict at sea and was ignorant of his beginnings and early career; so it was very interesting to read Trew's account of his joining the navy at the tender age of fourteen and a half on the 7th May 1732 as a volunteer or 'king's letter boy' but with influence from his kinsman the Duke of Chandos.

An interesting aspect of Trew's detailing of Rodney's heritage, being a member of an ancient family line, with the Rodney's owning properties in and around Rodney Stoke in Somerset for four centuries, up to the death of his great-grand-father Sir Edward Rodney in 1657, was that his particular line of the family was impoverished; and the young Rodney had to rely on other family connections to 'open doors' for him that might otherwise have been closed, possibly explaining his lifelong concern about personal wealth and the security it brought, that was certainly lacking in his early years.

Line Drawing of HMS Sheerness 1743, Rodney's first command - Royal Museums Greenwich Collection

However with the 'door opened' to a career in the Royal Navy the young Rodney enjoyed a meteoric rise to post captain eleven years later at the age of twenty-five making him one of the youngest captains in the navy, and eagerly awaiting his new command, the brand new frigate, Sheerness 24-guns, in August 1743 at the height of the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The Young Captain Rodney would learn his profession under the influence of Rear-Admiral Edward Hawke as part of what would become Great Britain's first line of defence against invasion and safe navigation to her home ports, namely the Western Squadron, involved in blockading munition supplies to Jacobite rebels in Scotland, anti-privateer cruising and experiencing his first major action on the 25th October 1747 off Cape Finisterre as Hawke swooped on a French convoy and its eight escorts, bound for Canada, taking six of them and where Rodney's path would cross that of a young French officer captured in the same battle and mentioned in another book review, that of the life of French Admiral Suffren.

Battle of Cape Finisterre (October 1747) - Pierre-Julien Gilbert (Palais du Luxembourg, Paris)
Battle of the Intrepid against several British Ships, having turned back to help the French flagship Tonnant escape along with herself.

With the end of the War of Austrian Succession, Rodney was one captain to remain employed in a peace time navy taking up the post of Governor of Newfoundland and flying a commodore's pennant as he patrolled the rich fishing grounds, with his small squadron whilst he set about fulfilling his parliamentary plans to become an MP, a career course that would lead him into debt and threaten his future as a naval officer.

Admiral Lord George Brydges Rodney in Flag Officer's Undress Uniform circa 1759, a 19th century copy of an unknown original - National Maritime Museum
A young Rodney pictured here, likely in his early forties as a Rear Admiral with his own hair.

His interwar naval career continued with appointments to guardships, but with the start of the Seven Years War in 1756 saw him appointed captain of the new class of 74-gun ships which would become the workhorse of the navy, HMS Dublin, which he would command throughout, taking part in the abortive attack on Rochefort under Hawke in 1757, and taking General Amhurst across the Atlantic for the attack on Louisbourg in 1758, where the first accusations were levelled at Rodney for an over-zealous pursuit of prize money over his duty and not for the last time.

On his return to England in 1759 and recuperation from a bout of scurvy Rodney was promoted to flag rank and became a Rear-Admiral of the Blue on the 19th May 1759 and following a few weeks as acting Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth he took command of a small squadron tasked with blockading and bombarding Le Havre at the mouth of the River Seine to deal with a threat of invasion barges being built there.

The Bombardment of Le Havre 5th July 1759 - Joseph-Abel Couture

Commanding from the 60-gun Achilles his squadron consisted of four 50-gun ships, six frigates, two sloops and six 'bomb' vessels and following a close reconnaissance of the defences aboard one of the frigates, Rodney had the bombs in position to bombard by 5th July 1759; and there followed a fifty-two hour bombardment of the town without intermission, only stopped when the bombs became unserviceable due to the continuous shock of firing and leaving the town a burning wreck as magazine stores and landing boats caught fire that raged for six hours as Rodney returned to Spithead leaving ships on blockade to prevent further supplies reaching the town by sea.

However Le Havre would continue to be a threat and a place Rodney would revisit, less successfully, following the French adding to their defences with floating batteries, during which time Rodney was re-elected MP for Okehampton in Devon in 1759, only to loose his seat yet again, two years later when not reselected by the government to stand in the 1761 election, forcing him to accept the offer of MP for Penryn in Cornwall which he won and remained a member for until 1768.

In 1761 plans were afoot to launch an invasion of  the French prize island of Martinique in the Caribbean, the richest of the sugar islands and a continual threat to British trade, being a nest of French privateers; and following Rodney's success at Le Havre, he was chosen by First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Anson, over more senior men, to command the expedition, hoisting his flag aboard HMS Marlborough 68-guns at Spithead on the 9th October.

The British attack the Citadel of Martinique, January 1762 - Dominic Serres

The operation commenced on the 16th of January 1762 when 8,000 British troops under the command of Major-General Robert Monckton who had been second in command to General Wolfe at Quebec were landed unopposed on the southern tip of the island, three miles from the principle town of Fort Royal, supported by two battalions of marines and sailors.

The Capture of Martinique, 11th February 1762 - Dominic Serres

The expedition was a model of close cooperation between the navy and army with Fort Royal surrendering on the 3rd of February and with the rest of the island secured by the 12th and its fall seeing the collapse of French possessions in the Leeward Islands as the neighbouring islands of St Lucia, Grenada and St Vincent were also taken by the 3rd of March, with an account by one of Monkton's officers about his appreciation of the support they received from the navy, concluding his comments;

'We had a thousand of these brave fellows sent to our assistance by the admiral; and the service they did us, both on shore and on the water, is incredible.'

However on the 5th March Rodney's attention had been drawn to a new threat in the area, following his receipt of a letter, dated 26th December 1761 informing him that Britain was now at war with Spain and also that a French squadron of seven ships of the line and five frigates together with 2,000 troops had escaped from Brest and were presumed to be heading his way, causing Rodney to order all his frigates to windward of the chain of Caribbean islands and organise two groups of his heaviest ships in readiness for any French arrival, however on discovering the fall of Martinque and neighbouring islands the French relief force avoided action and headed for the comparative safety of St Domingo.

War with Spain heralded more British reinforcements to the Caribbean with an assault on Havana and other Spanish colonies initiated, requiring a more senior naval commander in the form of Vice Admiral Sir George Pocock to take command, taking the the key Spanish town and naval base on the 14th August 1762, whilst Rodney was ill ashore in Martinique.

However with victory secured in the area, and with Pocock's departure, Rodney took command of a small squadron patrolling the Leeward Islands until wars end and his recall home in 1763, having had a rather 'good war'.

Another period of peace followed which started promisingly with promotion to Vice-Admiral in 1763, a baronetcy in 1764 and appointed Governor of Greenwich Hospital on a salary of £1,000 a year, however with a combination of gambling and a failed bid to be elected MP for Northampton in 1768 which cost Rodney £30,000, Rodney's financial security was in tatters and it seemed so was his naval career as after a short service command in Jamaica in 1770 he was forced on his return to England to run from his creditors, moving to Paris in 1774.

Admiral Lord George Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney - Jean-Laurent Mosnier (National Maritime Museum)

Within a year Britain would be at war again, with its American colonies and it seemed that Rodney had made himself unavailable, but a combination of one of his key supporters, seemingly well aware of his abilities, First Lord of the Admiralty John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich looking for any opportunity to get him back and the offer from Marechal de Biron, Constable of Paris to offer Rodney a loan to clear his debts and allow his return home in May 1778, just as France became emboldened to join the conflict following General Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga, facilitated Rodney's return to senior command.

The first three chapters in Trew's account covering this early period in Rodney's life really help set the scene in terms of the character of the man and the experiences that shaped him as a naval commander and I found myself comparing his career with that of his contemporary Suffren and drawing out the distinct similarities and differences - two men destined for a career at sea, both hailing from ancient noble families and starting their life afloat at an early age but in navies with very distinct and different approaches to using their fleets to project power. 

Both men come across as determined and impatient with any lack of obedience or initiative in their contemporaries and aggressively intent on grabbing the initiative and taking the battle to their enemy but not always able to impart their intent to their subordinates.

However one aspect that seems to stand out in Rodney's career is his good fortune, and his ability to snatch opportunity when presented that often worked to his and his country's benefit when in action but good fortune seemed to desert him when money and personal fortune were concerned and his latter career more than bears this out.

The capture of the Dutch island of St Eustatius in the Caribbean is an example of the latter opportunity, occurring soon after Dutch entry into the war alongside France and Spain in February 1781, offering Rodney an opportunity for revenge against an island that had saluted the ensign of  American rebel ships arriving at its port and was embroiled in the supply of arms and munitions to Britain's enemies on land and sea; previously protected by neutrality, with a number of those merchants carrying those supplies being British, and making vast profits for their owners, but committing gross acts of treason as far as Rodney and the British government were concerned.

In addition Rodney had suffered directly from this trade which was confirmed after his capture of the place showing the island's role in providing materials for refitting French ships with cordage and timber following previous action with Rodney's fleet, that should have kept them out of action for months.

All these affronts made for a compelling reason for Rodney to want to stamp out this thorn in the side of Britain's and his war effort had it not been for his need to clear his financial woes and his over zealous personal administration of the confiscation of personal property and other valuables that of course offered great wealth in prize money but lead to accusations, perhaps justly, that it caused him to forget his duty to military command in favour of his own personal gain; a charge that would continue to haunt him in later years with his battles in the courts with British merchant owners claiming compensation for mis-appropriated goods during his administration of seizures in the island.

That apart, his ability to take the war to the enemy towers above most of his contemporaries in the Royal Navy of this period with Trew highlighting that out of twenty-one enemy ships (French, Spanish and Dutch) captured or destroyed by the Royal Navy during the American War of Independence, from 1778 to 1783, fifteen are credited to Rodney in the period 1780 -1782 and that on two occasions he captured the opposing enemy admiral.

The moonlight Battle of Cape St Vincent, 16th January 1780 - Francis Holman (National Maritime Museum)
Lord Rodney's flagship, HMS Sandwich 90-guns is seen centre foreground as the Spanish 74-gun Santo Domingo explodes beyond

Of his latter career, two actions stand out exemplifying this aggressive intent, namely the Battle of Cape St Vincent 16th January 1780 that saw Rodney leading his newly coppered fleet of eighteen ships of the line and six frigates escorting a fleet of supply ships to the hard pressed garrison of Gibraltar encountering a Spanish squadron of nine ships of the line and two frigates; and engaging the Spanish in a two hour running battle through the afternoon and into the hours of darkness with only two of the Spanish ships escaping plus the frigates and with Spanish Admiral Langara among the captives as the convoy was safely escorted to its destination.

From a tactical point, Rodney concluded the advantage of attacking from leeward, noting;

'when the British fleet take the lee gage, the enemy cannot escape. This event has proved it, and I am fully convinced that every ship of the enemy would have been taken possession of had the weather permitted.'

In addition the action confirmed to him 'the infinite utility' of copper bottomed ships, without which, he believed the enemy could not have been brought to action, asking Lord Sandwich to add a number of such ships to his West Indies squadron.

The Battle of the Chesapeake 5th September 1781 - V Zveg (Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
The naval battle that lost Britain control of her American colonies if often cited to exemplify the sterility of naval tactics at this time with this inconclusive line versus line encounter, but in contrast to de Grasse and Graves, men like Rodney and indeed Suffren were not content to engage in such a way and constantly sought to bring a greater part of their strength against a selected point in the enemy line, often by doubling a part of it. Rodney and his breaking of de Grasse's line in the following year would herald a new way of achieving the same result.

But of course the action that propels Rodney into the list of the greatest Admirals in the age of sail era is of course his victory at the Battle of the Saintes and of course his famous 'breaking of the line' and as well as looking forensically at this famous battle, Trew includes the important lead ups to this climactic battle with a close look at the action with de Guichen off Martinique in May 1780; which stands in stark contrast to the Saintes and reminded me again with a distinct similarity to the issues Suffren had with his captains in the Indian Ocean where the ability of each commander to inculcate his junior officers with his plan of action when in contact with the enemy left a heavy reliance on signalling being understood and acted upon to meet the expectations of the commander especially with a new commander dealing with captains unfamiliar with those expectations.

Needless to say Martinique in 1780 did not end well and recriminations between Rodney and some of his captains followed, highlighting those issues of an unfamiliarity between the commander and his subordinates, with the latter obviously unclear with Rodney's plans when in contact with the enemy.

However the aggressive intent from Rodney, looking to double the French line, when he had the wind gage and opportunity, was a portent for the French when de Grasse would meet the British admiral in 1782, with a group of captains and junior admirals who were now very familiar with the expectations of their commander and showed the initiative to fulfil them with the appropriate actions as required.

Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, Viscount Hood - James Northcote (National Maritime Museum)
Hood was Rodney's very capable if somewhat 'challenging' subordinate in the West Indies

In addition Trew looks at the actions of Rodney's direct subordinate Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, not an unaggressive commander in his own right and forced to chafe as he was subordinated to the underwhelming Rear Admiral Thomas Graves at the Battle of the Chesapeake, after Rodney had to return home due to ill-health, and immediately identifying the missed opportunity by Graves as the French fleet under de Grasse hastily left its anchorage off Cape Henry; exposing its van squadron to attack by the whole British line and no doubt defeated in the hour that it took the centre and rear of the French line to close the gap which the inept Graves was happy to allow, with the inconclusive battle that followed and effectively ending British control of her North American colonies.

Battle of St Kitts January 1782 - Thomas Maynard (National Maritime Museum)
Repulse of the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse by Rear Admiral Hood's British fleet in Frigate Bay, St Kitts 26th January 1782.

In addition he illustrates the importance of the action conducted by Hood off St Kitts in January 1782, against de Grasse whilst Rodney was still away on sick leave but due to return within the month, which saw the French capture the island but left the French fleet embarrassed as their anchorage was seized by Hood and defended until hope for the British garrison was exhausted; seeing Hood slip away unmolested with the British fleet's morale boosted by their audacious movement and defence against de Grasse as he attempted unsuccessfully to eject them.

The Battle of the Saintes 12th April 1782, showing the British fleet braking the French line.
By Nicholas Pocock -, Public Domain,

With the return of Rodney to the West Indies, arriving in Barbados on the 19th February 1782, the stage was set for the coming clash between the British and French navies, and the stakes couldn't have been much higher, with the outcome likely to decide dominance in the theatre but also with British defeat at Yorktown, the final negotiating positions at the peace talks to end the American War of Independence, and for Britain in particular, with the future defence of her remaining overseas possessions, her ability to remain a major world power.

Fracois Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse, Lieutenant General des Armees navales (1723 - 1788) - Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse (Palace of Versailles)

Needless to say the build up to and then the actual Battle of the Saintes forms a major part of Trew's account as he takes two chapters to look at the details of this famous action that saw a Franco-Spanish plan to unite their fleets and deliver Lieutenant General Don Galvez together with 32,000 regular and 8,000 irregular troops to Jamaica, with Galvez already being referred to as the Governor of Jamaica.

Reinforcements brought the French and British fleets to near numerical equality with Rodney commanding 36 ships to de Grasse's 33 but with French having individual ships with heavier armaments versus the British superiority in morale and fighting efficiency. 

Sir Charles Douglas - John Jones,_1st_Baronet

Interestingly Rodney improved his chances further through two key appointments to his team, his Flag Captain Sir Charles Douglas, a noted gunnery expert at the time and able to impart his knowledge to increase the firepower of three of Rodney's ships, the Formidable 98-guns, Arrogant 74-guns and the Duke 98-guns all able to fire through a 90 degree arc of fire instead of just directly abeam, allowing these ships to come into action against a passing enemy ship much sooner and remain firing at it for longer and also to engage two enemy ships in line up to a range of a quarter of a mile if they were two cables (480 yards) or less apart; this improvement only added to the British adoption of upper-deck carronades and goosequill primers with flintlock and lanyards to shorten the time between the laying of the gun to its firing once the gun captain pulled the lanyard to fire.

Dr, Sir Gilbert Blane, Physician to the Fleet from 1780 to 1782 - Martin Archer Shee (Royal College of Physicians - London)

The other key addition to Rodney's team was an earlier appointment by him in the face of some opposition, namely his appointment of Dr Gilbert Blane as Physician to the Fleet from 1780 to 1782, a pioneer in naval medicine who emphasised to the Admiralty several key recommendations following his service with Rodney which included the importance of cleanliness and dryness and the efficacy of organising a ships company into divisions overseen by their own officer, a discretionary arrangement in his time but one that became compulsory after his guidance.

Blane noted the importance of fresh vegetables and fruit in combatting scurvy, that wine was more conducive to good health than rum and the availability of special foods for the sick, hospital ships and 500 feet of space per patient in hospital to improve hygiene. 

However the key testament to Blane's effectiveness were his outcomes recording that in the twelve months to July 1781 there were 12,109 men serving in twenty ships on the Leeward Islands. Of these fifty-nine were killed in battle but another 1,518 (12.5%) died of other causes. During the month of April 1782, the month of the Battle of the Saintes, deaths amounted to just twenty-four out of a total of 21,608 men serving in thirty-six ships, equivalent to a mortality rate over twelve months of only 1.3%, a considerable improvement despite Blane's admission that April had been an exceptionally good month.

With a former professional interest in medicine, all his recommendations and improvements left me very proud to be called a 'limey'.

The three key stages to the 'Breaking of the Line' at the Battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782
Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
The fortuitous change of wind at 09.20 that slowed the French and broke up their line was taken full advantage of as Rodney and his captains, following their admiral's lead, moved through the gaps that opened up.

Trew goes through in detail the respective manoeuvres of the two fleets that saw four French ships of the line captured, including de Grasse's flagship Ville de Paris 104-guns and one French ship destroyed with British casualties amounting to 243 dead and 116 wounded versus French casualties of approximately 3,000, together with 5,000 captured.

The aftermath of the battle is looked at and the reaction in the two countries together with the rewards and approbation or otherwise heaped upon the participants.

However, perhaps the most interesting part of the consideration of this battle were some of the key questions it poses, such as, with a fortuitous change in the wind, did Rodney pass through the line by design or by accident? Was he influenced by the writings of John Clerk the laird of Elgin as suggested by Sir John Jervis, Lord St Vincent? How much did Rodney's tactics influence those of Nelson? What were the merits or otherwise of a vigorous pursuit of the French fleet following the battle as proposed by Rodney's purportedly frustrated second in command Hood?

Many of these questions have been debated by historians and other authorities over the succeeding years and Trew takes an interesting journey through the competing views, however the fundamental result of Rodney's actions at the Saintes was that naval warfare had entered a new era and his influence on a more aggressive approach by British naval commanders from then on was seemingly irreversible and heralded what was to come in the early decades of the next century with Britain's enemies at sea very aware of the capabilities of the British Tar.

I really enjoyed this look at one of the greatest British admirals and have developed an even higher opinion of Lord George Brydges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney who stands above many of his contemporaries much as Nelson did above his, though both men were very different in the way they commanded their subordinates and as characters, but both men displaying those human foibles that make them seem very contemporary today, where great people are considered in the round, faults and all.

Rodney & the Breaking of the Line is published by Pen & Sword Books 2006 and is 249 pages which include the following;

List of Maps and Diagrams (16 Maps and Diagrams)
Note on Money, Measurements and Terminology

Chapter 1        Early Life
Chapter 2        Flag Rank
Chapter 3        The Moonlight Battle
Chapter 4        De Guichen
Chapter 5        De Grasse
Chapter 6        St Eustatius
Chapter 7        The Chesapeake
Chapter 8        The Saintes - Preliminaries
Chapter 9        The Battle of the Saintes
Chapter 10      Aftermath

Appendix 1    Prizes taken by Rodney in HMS Eagle in the Western Approaches between May 1746                           and June 1747.
Appendix 2    Opposing Fleets at the Battle of Martinique 17 April 1780.
Appendix 3    Battle of Martinique, 17 April 1780 - Signals by Rodney's Flagship.
Appendix 4    Opposing Fleets at the Battle of the Saintes 12 April 1782.
Appendix 5    Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782, Signals by de Grasse's Flagship.  
Appendix 6    Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782, Principle Signals by Rodney's Flagship. 
Appendix 7    Rodney's Dispositions in August 1781
Appendix 8    Advice from Lord Rodney to his son, Captain John Rodney, on Duties of a Captain.


The book has a list price of £19.99 but at the time of writing is available new or second hand for about £12.00 

Next up: Well the focus has been on preparing the Trafalgar collection for a roll out should lockdown restrictions relax and I thought I might take a look at the age old wargaming challenge of storage and safe transporting of models and terrain, plus talking of terrain, mats are very much in the ascendancy these days and I thought I would also look at the merits of them for naval games.

I also need to update the Vassal gaming scene as Steve and I continue to unlock the pleasures of Hannibal, Rome v Carthage now into our second game.

More anon

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