Friday, July 20, 2018

Heart of Oak*

(Source)
Young Tom stood by the gun he was assigned to, this would be his first sea fight. He had no idea what to expect. They had sailed all the way to the Caribbean and back, chasing the French and their Spanish allies.

Now, off the Spanish coast, they could see the long straggling line of the Combined Fleet, heading back to Cadiz and safety. But they were beating into the wind, which wasn't much to speak of, still and all, we have the weather gauge of them, or so old Jack Jones told him. And old Jack had been a sailor for over thirty years!


On the 21st of October, in the year 1805, the army of Napoléon Bonaparte waited in their camps along the Channel, a massive army, waiting for the Combined Fleet of Admiral Pierre-Charles-Jean-Baptiste-Silvestre de Villeneuve to draw the Royal Navy away long enough for the Grande Armée to cross the Channel and conquer that "nation of shopkeepers."

Villeneuve had successfully drawn the fleet under the incomparable Admiral Horatio Nelson after him, but like a hound on a scent, Nelson and the Royal Navy had chased Villeneuve down. Now, in the light airs off Cape Trafalgar, the British were closing for the kill.

Though the British were slightly outnumbered in ships, their vastly superior gunnery and seamanship gave many a French and Spanish captain pause, there was not much experience to be gained blockaded in port, the British seemed to spend most of their time at sea, as a sailor should.


Tom felt that the day was moving in an almost dreamlike fashion. The enemy fleet seemed to be nearly standing still as the second column of the fleet, led by HMS Royal Sovereign bore down on them. Slowly, ever so slowly.

Tom was aboard the HMS Bellerophon, the "Billy Ruffian" as she was known to her crew, fifth in line, just aft of HMS Tonnant and forward of HMS Colossus. The ship which their line was aimed at was huge. Three decks and old Jack said she carried 112 guns, a three-decker while Billy Ruffian was a two-decker of "only" 74 guns. This Spaniard, the Santa Ana according to Jack, would no doubt tower over their own ship.

As Royal Sovereign approached the line, every enemy ship in range opened fire on her, Tom didn't see how she would survive to break the enemy line.

But survive she did.


The first ship of the fleet in action at Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, she led one column of warships; Nelson's Victory led the other. Due to the re-coppering of her hull prior to her arrival off Cádiz, Royal Sovereign was a considerably better sailer in the light winds present that day than other vessels, and pulled well ahead of the rest of the fleet. As she cut the enemy line alone and engaged the Spanish three decker Santa Ana, Nelson pointed to her and said, 'See how that noble fellow Collingwood carries his ship into action!' At approximately the same moment, Collingwood remarked to his captain, Edward Rotheram, 'What would Nelson give to be here?'

Royal Sovereign and Santa Ana duelled for much of the battle, with Santa Ana taking fire from fresh British ships passing through the line, including HMS Mars and HMS Tonnant, while nearby French and Spanish vessels fired on Royal Sovereign. Santa Ana struck at 14:15, having suffered casualties numbering 238 dead and wounded after battling Royal Sovereign and HMS Belleisle. Royal Sovereign lost her mizzen and mainmasts, her foremast was badly damaged and much of her rigging was shot away. At 2.20 pm Santa Ana finally struck to Royal Sovereign. Shortly afterwards a boat came from Victory carrying Lieutenant Hill, who reported that Nelson had been wounded. Realising that he might have to take command of the rest of the fleet and with his ship according to his report being "perfectly unmanageable", by 3 pm he signalled for the frigate Euryalus to take Royal Sovereign in tow. Euryalus towed her round to support the rest of the British ships with her port-side guns, and became engaged with combined fleet's van under Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley, as it came about to support the collapsing centre. Fire from the lead ships shot away the cable between Royal Sovereign and Euryalus, and the latter ship made off towards Victory. Royal Sovereign exchanged fire with the arriving ships, until Collingwood rallied several relatively undamaged British ships around Royal Sovereign, and Dumanoir gave up any attempt to recover some of the prizes, and made his escape at 4.30pm. (Source)

Tom was in Hell. The constant pounding of the cannon, the billowing smoke, he could scarcely think or see as he served his gun. He had seen old Jack fall, skewered by a splinter the size of a man's arm when a French ball had crashed through the side of the ship by the cannon next to theirs.

He cried out in agony as his feet slid in the blood and torn flesh which caked the deck around them, he and the other survivors of his gun crew managed to run out their gun, which bellowed and sprang back once again as Tom struggled to pull another shot from the nearby rack.

How could anyone survive in this Hell on Earth?

(Source)
At 12:30 pm, Bellerophon cut through the enemy line, slipping under the stern of the Spanish 74-gun Monarca and firing two broadsides into her. Moving past the Spanish ship, Bellerophon collided with the French 74-gun Aigle, hitting Aigle's port quarter with her starboard bow, and entangling the two ships' yards. Locked together, they exchanged broadsides at close range, with soldiers aboard Aigle sweeping Bellerophon's decks with musket fire and grenades. Cumby noticed that the officers were being targeted, and that Cooke's distinctive epaulettes marked him out. Cumby urged him to take them off, only for Cooke to reply "It is too late now to take them off. I see my situation but I will die like a man." Bellerophon was now sustaining fire from Aigle and three other ships, the Spanish San Juan Nepomuceno and Bahama, and the French Swiftsure. Bellerophon's main and mizzenmasts were shot away at 1 pm, and at 1:11 pm, Captain Cooke was hit and killed. An eyewitness recorded that

"He had discharged his pistols very frequently at the enemy, who as often attempted to board, and he had killed a French officer on his own quarterdeck. He was in the act of reloading his pistols ... when he received two musket-balls in the breast. He immediately fell, and upon the quartermaster going up and asking him if he should take him down below, his answer was "No, let me lie quietly one minute. Tell Lieutenant Cumby never to strike."

With Cooke dead, Cumby assumed command. Bellerophon's decks had largely been cleared by French fire, and boarding parties began to make their way onto the ship. Several French sailors climbed out onto Bellerophon's spritsail yard, but a Bellerophon crewman released the brace holding the yard, causing them to fall into the sea. French sailors holding onto Bellerophon's rails had their hands beaten until they were forced to let go. Bellerophon's ensign had been shot away three times, so infuriating her yeoman of signals, Christopher Beaty, that he took the largest Union Jack he could find and climbed up into the mizzen rigging and hoisted it across the shrouds. The French riflemen on Aigle reportedly held their fire as he did this, in admiration of his bravery. The two ships were so close together that gun crews on their lower decks were fighting hand to hand at the gunports, while grenades lobbed through the ports caused heavy casualties. One grenade thrown into Bellerophon exploded in the gunner's storeroom, blowing open the door but fortunately blowing closed the door of the magazine. The resulting fire was quickly extinguished, preventing a catastrophic explosion.

By 1:40 pm, having been under heavy fire for over an hour, Aigle's crew lowered her gunports and slowly moved away. When the smoke cleared, Cumby noticed that the Spanish Monarca, which Bellerophon had first engaged, had struck her colours. Cumby sent an officer in a boat to take possession of her. Bellerophon's crew now worked to make repairs and clear away wreckage. She briefly fired her guns again when the van of the combined fleet, led by Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley, made a belated attempt to come to the assistance of the centre and rear. The attack was beaten off, and at 5 pm, Bellerophon's guns ceased firing. At 5:30 pm Cumby sent a boat to take possession of the Bahama, which had also struck her colours. By the end of the battle Bellerophon had sustained casualties of 27 men killed and 123 wounded. Among the dead was her captain, the master, John Overton, and midshipman John Simmons. (Source)
(Source)
I am currently in the middle of Roy Adkins' book Nelson's Trafalgar:The Battle That Changed the World and I am once again amazed at the bravery of those old time sailors. Those iron men who went to sea in wooden ships. Mr. Adkins' descriptions of the battle itself are enough to make one shudder at the thought of fighting a battle at sea in those towering ships of wood and canvas.

A most excellent book.

And yes, young Tom did survive Trafalgar, we shall meet him again in our travels.





* Heart of Oak is the official march of the British Royal Navy.

22 comments:

  1. Battleline published the wargame Wooden Ships, Iron Men back in the mid-70's and I read the Richard Bolitho series by Alexander Kent AKA Douglas Reeman, really enjoyed those books, still have most of them. A ship of the line then was perhaps the tech equivalent of the space shuttle as far as complicated ,inter-connected systems. Good posting Sarge.....will have to check the library for that book, sounds interesting.

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    1. I have the Avalon Hill version of that game, my mates and I played it a lot on Okinawa. Absolutely love the Bolitho books!

      Thanks Nylon12!

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    2. Ah, WSIM, where you learn pretty darned quickly to mount carronades on the upper deck pretty darned quickly. Nothing like crossing someone's T and firing a broadside of carronades to sweep the upper decks of the enemy. Yar!

      And another time I was the first to employ the ancient art of kedging. What fun.

      If only the in-laws hadn't destroyed my game collection. Bastards.

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    3. Ah, Beans.... that spelling is ... Bastiges...... least-wise that's what the neighboring Marine vet said when I was growing up although my dad always gave it the "tard" pronunciation.

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    4. Wanting to keel-haul the in-laws on a non-sheathed hull that's been out for a while, or strap them to a large carronade, or tie them to the anchor and send them down, or...

      So many possibilities, so darned illegal. Dang it. I can actually show restraint, as I did not manage to go medieval on their collective asses, as I did not have Mr. Tac-Remmy the snot-gun yet. Grrrr...

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  2. Men so different from the general population today that I doubt more than a handful today could conceive of their discipline, bravery, motivations and values...

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    1. Too true. But I'd bet that earlier generations said the same.

      Times were different then.

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  3. Sarge, you have a book locked up within you that needs to be let out. As usual, another rousing story, and you capture the reader's attention and bring the conflict to life. We may be coming through Providence in early September, I'll let you know if plans solidify. Hope we can get together with you and your lovely bride.

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    1. I need to drag them out, retirement is not that far away and I rather hope to spend a lot of that time finding, and writing, that book.

      Yes, keep me posted on your plans. Always enjoy meeting the readers! (Or as Lex called them, the friends I've never met, and I'll add, "and hope to someday.")

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  4. Great post. I operated quite a bit with the RN--they are still Hearts of Oak, albeit diminished in number these days.

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    1. Thanks Cap'n.

      Sad to think of the diminished nature of the Royal Navy.

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  5. Ah, the exaggerated uniforms, the Hats that told stations, what fun in the Age of Sail.

    Except for that whole 'death by flying shard of wood' thingy. Don't like splinters now, really would not like killer supersonic splinters of doom. That would suck.

    Interesting fact. French, Spanish and especially American ships were significantly stronger than their English counterparts. More trees meant more ribs in the frame, and thicker hull planking. By 1770's, England was kinda running short on wood, one of the many reasons they wanted to keep the Colonies.

    And the movie "Master and Commander" captured this whole genre very well. The tactics of sail, the huge open areas aboard ship (not), the viciousness of combat (loved it when the midshipman took charge, at 13, without an arm.) Wish they would have made more movies like that, but noooo, we get those stupid pirate movies. Yar, wheee...

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    1. Yes, more from that genre would be nice.

      Will it happen?

      Sigh, prolly not.

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  6. The French frigate Hermione.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4a5_zuc__dQ

    There is a longing in all of us to be a part of something greater.

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    1. Yup, she's a beauty. The original was at Trafalgar.

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  7. Excellent piece of narrative. I highly recommend Ian Toll's "Six Frigates", the founding of our early Navy. The story of the Quaker shipbuilders using the live oaks cut down in the swamps of the southeast and used as main frame girders of the frigates is brilliant engineering in that it made use of the native woods that made them damn near indestructible. Yankee ingenuity at its finest............

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    1. I have read that book. I also recommend it most highly!

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