History of HMS Victory, Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Part Seven

The HMS Victory Raking the Spanish Salvador del Mundo at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February, 1797 by Robert Cleveley (1747-1809)
Chrono date: 
1796 Nov 02

Spain had made a peace with France in 1794; and now in August 1796, an alliance, offensive and defensive, was concluded between the two powers. This put Sir John Jervis in a very critical position, as the united French and Spanish fleets amounted to 38 ships of the line, while Sir John, who was at Martello Bay, had but 15. It was determined accordingly, to evacuate Corsica, as the power of the French republic, and the deeds of their countrymen, Buonaparte, were awaking feelings in the inhabitants that were not amicable to England. This was completed on the 2nd November, and Sir John and all his fleet sailed from Corsica, and escorted the transports to Gibraltar, which was reached on December 11th. On the 16th he went on to Lisbon to meet some expected reinforcements from home.

Here he remained until the 18th January, when he sailed with 10 ships only; but on February 6th 5 more joined from England, when his force consisted of the following line-of-battle ships, with which he cruised, awaiting news of the enemy.

110 HMS Victory Admiral Sir John Jervis, KB., Capt. Robert Calder. Capt. George Grey.
100 HMS Britannia Vice-Admiral Charles Thompson, Capt. Thomas Foley.
98 HMS Barfleur Vice-Admiral Hon. W. Waldergrave. Capt. James R. Dacres.
98 HMS Prince George Rear-Admiral Willaim Parker. Capt. John Irwin.
98 HMS Blenheim Capt. Thomas L. Frederick
80 HMS Namur Capt. James H. Whitshed
74 HMS Captain Commodore Horatio Nelson, Capt. Ralph Miller.
74 HMS Goliath Capt. Sir Charles Knowles, Bart.
74 HMS Excellent Capt. Cuthbert Collingwood
74 HMS Orion Capt. Sir James Saumarez
74 HMS Colossus Capt. George Murray
74 HMS Egmont Capt. John Sutton
74 HMS Culloden Capt. Thomas Troubridge
74 HMS Irresistible Capt George Martin
64 HMS Diadem Capt George H. Towry

On the 13th, when off Cape St. Vincent, Commodore Nelson in the Minerve frigate, joined and reported having been chased by the Spaniards. This was a fleet of 27 sail of the line, which had passed the Straits on the 5th, and was working up for Cadiz, with the intention of picking up more ships there, and then proceeding for Brest to join the French.

The morning of the 14th, the ‘glorious St. Valentine’s day, 1791, broke thick and misty, but as soon as daylight made its appearance, the Spaniards were sighted to the S.W.; one by one they were made out through the fog, and reported to the Admiral, who received the report of their increasing numbers with imperturbability, and when the whole 27 sail were fully in sight, and Captain Calder expressed some hesitation about the wisdom of coping with such odds, he exclaimed, “Enough Sir, were there fifty I will go through them.”

The Spanish fleet were much scattered and in no particular order, but some eight ships were considerably to leeward of the rest, leaving a distinct gap, which was, however, rapidly narrowing, by the nineteen ships to windward running down to join their companions. For this gap the British ships pushed with all sail in a compact line, HMS Victory in the centre. A few minutes hesitation might have been fatal, for had the enemy got all his ships together, the 15 English vessels would have fought against great odds; but Jervis was a bold Commander, to whom indecision was unknown, and who was well aware of the value of the presence of a man like Nelson, and, indeed, it was mainly by the latter’s daring manoeuvre at a later period of the action, that the Spaniards were prevented from effecting their junction.

As it was, they were just in time, and as soon as the weather division of Spaniards saw the head of the English line between them and their friends, they hauled to the wind on the opposite tack, hoping to get round the rear of the British line, and so effect their purpose. Their lee division still stood determinedly on, and attempted to cut the British line ahead of the Victory herself, but she, by her rapid advance, frustrated this, and forced the Principe de Asturias, of 112 guns, to put about to avoid a collision. The Spanish ship, which bore the flag of one of their Rear- Admirals, let fly her broadside as she shot up in the wind, but either from the obscurity caused by smoke, or by mistaken orders this was done at the wrong time, and extraordinary to relate, not a shot struck the Victory. With a ringing cheer of derision from her crew, the British flag-ship re-paid the compliment, but with interest, for as the Spanish three- decker slowly turned round and presented her stern to her, the whole of the Victory’s guns were discharged into it with destructive effect. The Spaniard ran straight away to leeward, followed by his whole division, and until the close of the day, never appeared again in the action.

Battle of Cape St Vincent.

Battle of Cape St Vincent.

In the mean time, the weather division, as has been said, were intending to round the rear of our line, and so join their ships to leeward, but Nelson, in the Captain, the third ship of the line from the rear, saw their object the instant their van bore up together astern, and immediately wearing round, plunged fearlessly into their midst. He was followed by the Culloden and Excellent, and the Spanish Admiral, daunted by this spirited conduct, hauled to the wind, and gave up the attempt.

The map may help to the comprehension of the position of affairs at this period of the action.

The other British ships in the meantime were tacking in succession, and one after another came into action to the support of their comrades.

The Victory engaged the Salvador del Mundo, A 112 gun ship, which had already been mauled by the Excellent, and forced her to strike her colours. This was at 3 p.m., and shortly afterwards. Sir John, who was discreet as he was bold, observing that about 24 Spaniards (composed of the 8 lee ships, and odd ships of the weather division, who were all fresh) were bearing down on them, made the signal to close up to cover the prizes; this was immediately done, and the Spaniards, not liking the look of the compact line of the British, hauled off, and made no effort to continue the action.

In this battle, Nelson particularly distinguished himself, as in his little 74, the HMS Captain he boarded in succession, and took, the San Nicholas of 80, and San Josefs of 112 guns; the Victory passing just at that time, gave the gallant Captain three cheers. Nelson went on board the Victory after the action, and was warmly embraced by Sir John Jervis, on the very quarter-deck on which he was to fall, covered with glory, eight years later, and not far from the place where this battle had been fought.

But for all these details we must refer the reader to James’s Drinkwater’s and other accounts.

The Victory, strange to say, had but 1 man killed, and 8 wounded; the total loss in the English fleet being about 350 killed and wounded.

The fruits of the victory were the San Josef, Salvador del Mundo, 112, San Nicholas, 80, and San Isidro, 74; a result, that considering these prizes were wrested from 27 ships by 15, cannot but be considered as most glorious.

The enemy, next day, had it in their power to renew the action with 21 ships. Who can say what the result might have been, for some of our vessels were so disabled as to render it necessary to tow them; but though the Spaniards once made a feint, as if they would attack, they finally disappeared, allowing our fleet and prizes to arrive safely at Lagos Bay, in Portugal, where they anchored on the 16th.

On the 19th, they experienced a gale of wind that drove the Victory from her anchors, whereby she had a most narrow escape of being wrecked. On the 23rd they sailed, and arrived at Lisbon on the 28th, without accident or molestation.

The news of the battle of Cape St. Vincent, as it was called, was received in England with frantic joy; great rejoicings took place throughout the kingdom, the fleet received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, Sir John Jervis was created Earl of St. Vincent, Admirals Thompson and Parker were made Baronets, and the gallant Commodore Nelson was invested with the honours of the Bath.

On the 28th March Sir John Jervis was reinforced by a squadron from England, when he shifted his flag on the 30th from the Victory to the HMS Ville de Paris, a new three decked ship.

The fleet sailed next day (the Victory being now a private ship) and proceeded off Cadiz, where Nelson had been cruising for some time watching the Spanish ships, who, ever since the 16th of February had lain in that port, hooted and jeered at by the populace, and their Admirals and Captains disgraced.

Jervis blockaded Cadiz during the summer, the Victory serving in sometimes the outer, sometimes the in-shore squadron, and sending her boats to take part in the night attacks, undertaken by Commodore Nelson, with the hopes of shaming the Spaniards to coming out. On one of these occasions, 5th July, some of her men were wounded. But the Dons were not to be lured out, and on the approach of winter. Earl St. Vincent withdrew his vessels to the Tagus, and amongst other ships sent the Victory home, with the prizes taken on February 14th. She arrived at Spithead on October 1st, and thence going to Chatham, paid off on November 26th, after another long and eventful commission of nearly five years duration.

Worn out, and unfit for further active service, the poor old Victory was here degraded to the office of prison hospital ship, which she filled for two years, when, unwilling that such a favourite and fast sailing ship should be lost to the country, the Admiralty directed her to be thoroughly repaired. This took a year, and in the spring of 1801 she came out of dock almost a new ship, but she was not ready for service in the Baltic campaign of that date, and had rest at Chatham for still two years.

Reference

  • Captain W.J.L. Wharton, RN, A Short History of HMS Victory, Portsmouth, Griffin & Co,2, The Hard, Portsmouth.

 

History of HMS Victory  – Part One

History of HMS Victory, Early Career – Part Two

History of HMS Victory, Engagement with the French off Ushant – Part Three

History of HMS Victory, Siege of Gibraltar – Part Four

History of HMS Victory, Occupation of Toulon – Part Five

History of HMS Victory, Imminent peril of the Victory – Part Six

History of HMS Victory, Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Part Seven

History of HMS Victory, Blockade of Toulon – Part Eight

History of HMS Victory, Nelson’s pursuit to the West Indies - Part Nine

History of HMS Victory, Battle of Trafalgar – Part Ten

History of HMS Victory, Death of Nelson – Part Eleven

History of HMS Victory, Damage sustained by Victory – Part Twelve

History of HMS Victory, Victory again in Active Service – Part Thirteen

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