Destruction of the French Fleet in Basque Roads by Thomas Sutherland after a painting by Thomas Whitcombe, 1817.
Successful Royal Navy action against the French navy using fireships. In the spring of 1809, a squadron of French warships sailed from Brest and anchored off the Basque and Aix Roads, near Rochefort. The squadron’s commander, Vice Admiral Zacharie Allemand, had a strong force of 11 ships of the line and four frigates. The powerful English Channel squadron under Admiral of the Fleet Lord James Gambier subsequently pursued the French up to the port and then stood off, being content to blockade them. Gambier’s reluctance to attack resulted from his understanding that the Basque and Aix Roads anchorage was strongly protected by forts, shoals, and treacherous tides. Moreover, the entire harbor was obstructed by a strong boom fastened to the sea floor. The Admiralty, however, could not allow such a strong French presence to remain astride British lines of communication to Portugal and the Mediterranean, and it was determined to remove them.
In April 1809 the Admiralty informed Gambier that it had dispatched Captain Lord Thomas Cochrane, recently returned from the Mediterranean, with orders to conduct an operation against the French with fireships under Gambier’s direction.
Cochrane quickly discounted the strength of the forts, as they were manned by conscripts. He then concocted a scheme using a combination of explosive ships and fireships to attack the French fleet at anchor. Gambier, a cautious leader, evinced no enthusiasm for the plan and initially refused to attack. On the night of 11 April 1809, however, the combination of a favorable wind and an incoming tide changed his mind. Accordingly, Cochrane captained the first fireship, an old transport crammed with gunpowder and grenades, right up to the harbor boom before evacuating it. This ship and a second fire vessel cleared the approach with mighty detonations, after which some 35 fire vessels followed the current into the bay. Allemand had anticipated Cochrane’s move by stripping his ships of their top sails, and anchoring them line-abreast in the harbor. Nevertheless, the French captains panicked during the attack and many cut their ship cables and tried to maneuver out of the way. In the ensuing confusion, most of the French ships of the line ran aground and several were severely damaged in collisions. Ironically, owing to premature release, the fireships themselves did relatively little damage.
On the morning of the 12th Cochrane took the frigate HMS Imperieuse (38 guns) into the harbor and saw nearly the whole French squadron either grounded or in disarray. He signaled frantically and repeatedly for Gambier to bring up the fleet and destroy the helpless French ships before they could be refloated. Gambier, still reluctant to risk his ships, delayed for several hours before sending in reinforcements. These eventually captured three ships of the line, but the bulk of Allemande’s fleet was refloated and survived. Thanks to Gambier’s indecision, the Battle of Basque and Aix Roads was something of a lost opportunity, but it was still a striking victory over a strongly positioned enemy.
Clowes, William Laird. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present. Vol. 5. London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1899. Reprint, London: Chatham Publishing, 1997.
James Gambier, First Baron Gambier (1756–1833)
British admiral. Born 13 October 1756 in New Providence, Bahamas, when his father was serving as lieutenant governor of that colony, at age 11 James Gambier was entered on the books of the Yarmouth, which was commanded by his uncle, future Vice Admiral James Gambier (1723–1789). Made lieutenant in 1777, Gambier was quickly promoted to command the bomb vessel Thunder.
Captured by the French, Gambier was soon exchanged and took command of the Raleigh, participating in the relief of Jersey in 1779 and the capture of Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780 during the 1775–1783 War of American Independence. He was on half pay until 1793, when he took command of the Defence (74 guns). During this command, Gambier became particularly well known for promoting religion and morality among his men.
At the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794) Gambier was among the first to break the French line, earning him a gold medal. Promoted to rear admiral in 1795, he served as an Admiralty commissioner first in 1795–1801 and again in 1804–1806 and 1807–1809. In 1806 he was governor and commander in chief on the Newfoundland station.
Gambier commanded the bombardment of Copenhagen on 2–5 September 1807, taking the Danish Navy. Raised to the peerage, he returned to the Admiralty until he took command of the Channel Fleet. In the Battle of Basque and Aix Roads on 11–12 April 1809, Gambier disagreed with Captain Thomas Cochrane’s audacious plan to attack the French fleet with fireships and gave it only nominal support. To clear his name from Cochrane’s public charges against him, Gambier requested a court-martial and was honorably acquitted.
Gambier remained in command of the fleet until 1811, after which he had no further active naval service. In 1814, he was one of the commissioners negotiating at Ghent a treaty of peace with the United States, ending the War of 1812. In his later years, he continued his interest in promoting Evangelical Anglicanism and religion among seaman. In 1824 the Episcopal Bishop of Ohio in the United States made contact with Gambier, and he became one of the founders of Kenyon College. Its seat, the town of Gambier, Ohio, is named for him. Promoted to admiral of the fleet in 1830, Lord Gambier died at Iver House, Iver, Buckinghamshire, on 19 April 1833.
Chatterton, Georgina. Memorials Personal and Historical of Admiral Lord Gambier, G.C.B. London: Hurst & Blackett, 1861.
Laughton, John K. “James, Lord Gambier.” In Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Leslie Stephen, 20: 393–395. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1889.