The Battle of 

Cape St. Vincent

 

(14th February 1797)

 

 

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The background to the action

By 1797 the war with revolutionary France was in its 4th year. 

An invasion of England was high on the enemy's agenda.

As Napoleon's land army took possession of most of Continental Europe the English fleet in the Mediterranean faced an impossible situation. The only 2 bases that remained under their control were Corsica and Elba and it was impossible to maintain a fleet under these circumstances.

So in December it was shortage of supplies that forced the English fleet to quit the Mediterranean for the first time in centuries.

In the meantime the Mediterranean fleet had been under the command of Sir John Jervis since the summer of 1795. In that short time Jervis turned the fleet into a disciplined and formidable force. He might have taken for his motto, "Men must be made to fear their officers more than danger" and he led them by the fear of the lash and the force of his example.

In 1797 Jervis was 62 years old but he had under him some fine young captains including Captain Nelson in the Agamemnon. Nelson wrote to his wife: "At home they know not what this fleet is capable of performing, any and everything. Of all fleets I ever saw, I never saw one in point of officers and men to our present one, and with a commander-in-chief fit to lead them to glory".

Autumn 1796 Spain declared war on England and the combined fleets of Spain and France outnumbered that of England by 4 to 1.
December 1796 With no bases other than Corsica and Elba, shortage of supplies forced the English fleet to quit the Mediterranean for the first time in centuries. 
6/10 Dec 1796 The Spanish fleet returned to Cartagena from Toulon and Villeneuve with 5 French ships-of-the-line passed through the straits on the way to Lorient. Everything seemed to be falling into place for a concerted attack on the British Isles.
10 Dec 1796 Nelson with 2 frigates was sent to evacuate the garrison of Elba. Nelson fought and captured 2 Spanish frigates on 20th December but the prizes had to be abandoned
January 1797

Jervis moved the base of his fleet from Gibraltar to Lisbon.

The object of the fleet was now the defence of Portugal and keeping the combined fleets in the Mediterranean  

A mixture of bad weather and bad luck had reduced his ships from 15 to 9 in a month. 

1 Feb 1797 The Spanish fleet left Cartegna and sailed out into the Atlantic 
6 Feb 1797

Jervis made a rendezvous with various frigates he had left to cruise in the neighbourhood of Cadiz, and long-awaited reinforcements under Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker - the Prince George, Namur, Orion, Irresistible, Colossus and Thalia frigate. 

This brought the number of English ships-of-the-line to 15 of which 6 were three-deckers. 

11/12 Feb1797

Nelson, on his way back from Elba, found himself sailing through the Spanish fleet in a fog. 

Nelson had 2 possible courses of action. One was to rendezvous with Jervis and give him the news that the Spanish were in the Atlantic.The other would be to make sail for the West Indies to bring warning that they might be the enemy's destination. He chose the former.

13 Feb 1797

Nelson rendezvoused with Jervis off Cape St Vincent. He went onboard the Victory early that morning with his news. Jervis listened with stern satisfaction then, as a fleet action seemed imminent, ordered him back to his own ship, the Captain, which would take her place in the line of battle. The importance of intercepting the Spanish before they could reach Cadiz was obvious to all. 

The British had been driven from the Mediterranean

The whole of continental Europe was dominated by France

The war had driven Britain's commerce to the brink of bankruptcy

Ireland was near to rebellion

There were even rumours of simmering mutiny in ships of the Royal navy

As Jervis was heard to say: "A victory is very essential to England at this moment".

14 Feb1797

Dawn

As the mist lifted, Sir Robert Calder, captain of the fleet reported to Jervis:

"There are eight sail of the line, Sir John."

"Very well, Sir."

"There are twenty sail of the line, Sir John."

"Very well, Sir."

"There are twenty-five sail of the line, Sir John."

"Very well, Sir."

"There are twenty-seven sail of the line, Sir John - near double our own."

"Enough, sir, no more of that! The die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them." 

British Ships

Spanish Ships

Ship Guns Commander Ship Guns Commander
Victory 100

Admiral Sir John Jervis

Captain R Calder

Atlante 74 G Vallego
Captain 74

Commodore H Nelson

Captain RW Miller

Bahama 74 Admiral D de Nava
Blenheim 90

TL Frederick

Pelayo 74 C Valdes
Culloden 74

T Troubridge

San Pablo 74 B de Cisneros
Excellent 74

C Collingwood

Neptuno 84 JL Goicoecha
Irresistible 74

G Martin

Concepcion 112 Adml Morales de los Rios
Prince George 98

Rear-Admiral Parker

San Domingo 74 M de Torres
Orion 74

Sir J Saumarez

Conquistadore 74 J Butler
Goliath 74

Sir CH Knowles

size="1" San Juan Nepomuceno 74 A Boneo
Namur 90

JH Whitshed

San Genaro 74 A Villavicencio
Barfleur 98

Vice-Adml Waldegrave

Captain JR Dacres 

Mexicano 112 Adml P de Cardenas
Colossus 74

G Murray

Terrible 74 F Uriarte
Diadem 64

GH Towry

Oriente 74 J Suarez
Egmont 74

J Sutton

Soberano 74 J V Yanez
Britannia 100

Vice-Adml Thompson

size="1" Santissimo Trinidada 136 Adml J de Cordova
Frigates etc. *San Nicolas 84 T Geraldino
Lively 32

Lord Garlies

*San Ysidro 74 DT Argumosa
La Minerve 38

G Cockburn

size="1" *Salvador del Mundo 112 DA Yepes
Niger 32

EJ Foote

*San Josef 112 Adml FJ Winthuysen
Southampton 32

J McNamara

San Ildefonso 74 R Maestre
size="1" La Bonne Citoyenne 18

C Lindsay

Conde de Regla 112 Adml P de Cardenas
Raven brig 18

W Prowse

San Firmin 74 J de Torres

Fox cutter

12

Lt. Gibson

size="1" Principe de Asturias 112 Adml JJ Moreno
      San Antonio 74 S Medina
      size="1" San Fancisco de Paolo 74 J de Guimbarda
      Firme 74 B Ayala
      Glorioso 74 J Aguizze
      * Signifies captured ships

    

14 Feb1797

11.00 A.M

Jervis signalled to form line of battle ahead or astern of the flagship, as most convenient, on a course bearing SSW.

14 Feb1797

11.29 A.M

His line now formed, Jervis signalled his intention "to pass through the enemy line."

14 Feb 1797

11.30 A.M

The Culloden leading the line opened fire as she passed through the gap. So close did the ships pass that the English crew could peer into the other's gunports. The Spaniard went about without being able to fire a shot in reply.

Seeing that the British line now lay betwen him and his leeward division, Cordova now altered course in order to pass astern of Jervis's fleet

14 Feb 1797

12.08 P.M.

When he realised Cordova's intention, Jervis decided to order his whole line to tack in succession in order to engage the enemy on the same tack, and this time to pass through him from to windward instead of to leeward

14 Feb 1797

12.15 P.M.

The action became general from the van to centre (i.e. from the Culloden to the Victory)

Accustomed as he was to the highest standards of seamanship, Jervis could not restrain his delight at Troubridge's virtuosity. "Look", he cried to the master of the Victory, "Look at Troubridge there! He tacks his ship in battle as if the eyes o England were upon him; and would to God they were, for they would see him to be, what I know him to be, and, by Heaven, sir, as the Dons will soon feel him to be!"

14 Feb 1797

13.00 P.M.

Cordova was now attempting to pass astern of the British line. When Jervis ordered his ships to tack in succession to follow him, it was obvious to Nelson in the Captain, lying third from the rear, that, by the time the whole British line had turned, the Spanish admiral would have achieved his aim, because he had the advantage of the wind.

By throwing his ship, although only a 74, across the path of the 136-gun Spanish flagship and the three-deckers astern of her, Nelson forced them to alter course, thus giving Jervis's ships time to work their way further into the main body. Only a tactician of genius, certain of his own judgement, and only a man utterly without fear, would have dared to do this.

It was thus that a comparatively obscure Commodore sailed into history.

14 Feb 1797

15.00 P.M.

The battle became a melee. Jervis signalled Collingwood to leave his station and tack into Nelson's wake to provide support. The Captain had taken such a beating that she all but lost steerage way, and Nelson decided that the better part of valour would be to ram the 80-gun San Nicolas and board her. He insisted on commanding the boarding party himself, and when he found himself under fire from the San Josef of 112 guns which was close aboard the other side of the San Nicolas, he called for another boarding party and crossed over to her, sword in hand. This incident became known in the fleet as "Nelson's Patent Bridge for Boarding First-Rates".

On the quarterdeck of the San Nicolas the Spanish captain, with a bended knee, presented Nelson with hsi sword. At the behest of Nelson he called to the officers and ship's company that the ship had surrendered.

The Spanish flagship, Santissima Trinidad, sustained the heaviest damage of all, having been attacked, the whole afternoon by a three-decker and three ships of 74 guns that raked her fore and aft.

14 Feb 1797

17.00 P.M.

By five o'clock the short February day was waning. For the first time the Spanish lee division showed signs of of fight, though what they were really doing was protecting the Santissima Trinidad as she staggered out of the melee before the wind. Jervis saw that if he was to secure his prizes and succour the crippled Captain it was necessary to break off the action. He therefore ordered his ships to form line astern of the Victory and told the frigates to take the prizes in tow.

The night of the

14th February

The British fleet lay to during the night of 14th. They were some distance to leeward of the Spanish fleet, which they could see huddled together in some confusion. They themselves were in admirable order once more, a close-hauled, line-ahead formation lying between the enemy and the prizes, which were in tow of the frigates, as was also the Captain.

15 Feb 1797

The next day Jervis awaited a renewal of the battle, for he was in no position to attack himself.

16 Feb 1797

Cordova's fleet drew away to the southward in the diraection of Cadiz.

Jervis sent the following letter to his captains:

"No language I am possessed of can convey the high sense I entertain of the exemplory conduct of the flag-officers, captains, officers, seamen, marines and soldiers, embarked on board every ship of the squadron I have honour to command.....The signal advantage obtained.....on that day is entirely owing to their determined valour and discipline".

The aftermath

The victory off Cape St Vincent was the first British victory in three years.

A fortnight later, news of the victory reached England and caused intense rejoicing - not so much  because of its scale, but because it showed that victories were still possiblean because it removed (at least for a while) the genuine fear of invasion.

Jervis was raised to the peerage with title of Baron Jervis of Meaford in the County of Stafford and Earl of St. Vincent.

Nelson was made a rear-admiral and given the Order of the Bath (in preference to a baronetcy).

Vice-admirals Thompson and Parker became baronets

Waldegrave, who already possessed a title was given an Irish peerage.

To Fanny Nelson wrote, "The Spanish war will give us a Cottage and a piece of ground which is all I want".

The name "Nelson" was beginning  to mean something special and different, something new and exciting; it was beginning to to acquire its sense of magic for the navy.  

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