The battle for Britain 1759

In 1759, Admiral Sir Edward Hawke launched a daring attack on French ships deep in enemy waters. Jeremy Black describes how the ensuing clash scuppered French plans for an invasion of the British Isles

‘Battle of Quiberon Bay' (c1765), from 'Old Naval Prints' by Charles N Robinson and Geoffrey Holme (The Studio Limited, London), 1924. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On the morning of 20 November 1759, a frigate of Sir Edward Hawke’s fleet caught glimpse of a group of enemy ships just off the south coast of Brittany. News of the sighting would have been music to the British admiral’s ears for, as Hawke well knew, this was no ordinary posse of enemy vessels. They belonged to the fleet of French commander the Comte de Conflans, and their destination was the coast of Scotland where they planned to spearhead a French invasion of Britain.

Hawke had been tracking the French fleet for almost a week. Now, as Conflans took refuge from his pursuers in nearby Quiberon Bay – counting on its shoaly waters and strong swell to deter an attack – the British admiral went on the offensive. With top-sails set – and despite the ferocity of the rising gale, which was blowing at nearly 40 knots – his ships sailed into the confined space of the Breton bay, overhauled the French rear division and forced a general action in heavy seas. British gunnery and seamanship proved superior in this confused engagement, and seven ships of the French line, including Conflans’ flagship, were captured, sunk or wrecked.

French casualties were heavy – the Superbe sank with the loss of its entire crew of 630 after two broadsides from Hawke’s Royal George – yet the British suffered just two warships wrecked, and both their crews were saved. Victory was Hawke’s: Conflans’ fleet would never reach British waters.

To understand the significance of Quiberon Bay, it’s worth returning to the months before the battle.“No strength should be now neglected for the security of this country. All the militias which are in readiness are called out.” When William Pitt the Elder, Britain’s war minister, uttered these words, he had every right to be worried. Seventeen fifty nine was, after all, invasion year, the year in which France planned, with a knock-out blow, to settle for good the wars with Britain that had begun in 1689 with the Glorious Revolution that led to the anti-French William III seizing power.

Conflict between Britain and France had resumed in North America in 1754 and had become a full-scale war in 1756, the Anglo-French section of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). That year, the French had indeed staged an invasion, and done so successfully, but it was of the Mediterranean island of Minorca and not the landing in southern England feared by the British.

In 1757, the centre of attention for France was not British waters, but the war with Britain’s ally, Frederick the Great (Frederick II) of Prussia. British eyes were, meanwhile, focused on an attempt to reverse earlier French gains in the New World. The campaigning of 1758 in North America suggested that France needed to mount a knock-out blow against Britain, because, in its absence, the French system was being put under pressure: with Britain mounting more successful attacks in North America, notably the capture of the key naval base of Louisbourg. Worse still for the French, the British had also sent an army to Germany.

Choiseul, the leading French minister, proposed a concerted attack on Britain. France was allied to Austria, Russia and Sweden against Prussia, and he suggested a joint invasion: the French to invade southern England, and Russian and Swedish forces to land in Scotland. Neither power, however, agreed. Although relations were poor, they were not actually at war with Britain, and they intended to concentrate on their conflict with Prussia.

A new plan of attack

Instead, the French focused on a plan for an invasion of Britain by 100,000 troops, with landings in the Clyde and at Portsmouth, although the latter was subsequently altered to Essex because of a British naval blockade of the embarkation port of Le Havre. Choiseul’s plan was unrealistic, insofar as it anticipated significant support from the remaining Jacobites, those for whom there was still a ‘James III’, the son and heir of the James II evicted and replaced in 1688–9.

It is unlikely that the invasion force could have conquered Britain. Nevertheless, had even part of the French force landed, it would still have posed serious problems for the British government, both in mounting a successful defence and in terms of Britain’s global military effort. Moreover, recent years showed that invasions could be mounted. William of Orange had landed in Devon in 1688 en route to becoming William III of Britain, Spanish forces had landed in Scotland in 1719, and Bonnie Prince Charlie (the son of ‘James III’) had stepped ashore in Scotland in 1745. All were effected in the face of superior naval power.

The French were well aware of Jacobite weakness. In April 1755, Rouillé, the foreign minister, wrote that the Jacobites were not capable of overthrowing the British government, and that any such plan was chimerical. A French memo of the same year stated that it would be foolish for France to invade Britain unless she had control of the sea, and that that would require the destruction of the British navy.

The Jacobites sought to exploit the situation. In August 1755, ‘James III’ approached the French government, claiming that, while Anglo-French relations had been good, he had kept his distance, but now that war appeared likely, that the only way for France to obtain a solid peace would be to restore the Stuarts. Arguing that he enjoyed considerable support in England and Scotland, James stated that the arrival of a French force would lead the Jacobites to rally, and that, if no invasion could be mounted from France, one should be from Sweden. That October, the Jacobites added details of their alleged support in Wales.

The French reply was limited to compliments, and their plans for an invasion of England in the early stages of the war paid little attention to the Jacobites. Proposals from the latter were seen as unhelpful. Thus, a Jacobite plan of 1756 that the French invade between Rye and Winchelsea with 6,000 troops carried from Dieppe and Boulogne in small ships, while the British fleet was held back by adverse winds, was regarded as an underestimation of the strength of the British army.

Despite the fact that French priorities continued to focus on invasion, and that the situation had become much more serious by 1759, it took a while for the British government to focus on it. This was partly because the prospect of such an attack was regarded as constraining William Pitt the Elder’s attempt to focus British efforts on the conquest of France’s colonies. A bitter opponent of France, Pitt, who had become secretary of state in 1756, was the minister most centrally responsible for the direction of military policy.

The potential impact on British policy was the second dimension of the crisis: not only could Britain be attacked, but would an attack or the threat of an attack hamper Britain’s global struggle? In 1756, when an invasion of England had been threatened, Henry Fox, a rival to Pitt and then secretary of state for the Southern Department, observed “if invasion or threats of invasion from France can effect the keeping of our fleets and troops at home, while they send regular troops, with their fleets to North America, the object of the war will be lost the first year of it”.

Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, Pitt’s government colleague but also critic, complained in April 1759 that the French threat was not taken seriously enough: “I see there is a disposition almost everywhere to despise the notion of an invasion here, in Scotland, or in Ireland – notwithstanding that, nothing is more true, than that this has been, and is still the design of France”.

Another critic of Pitt, John Russell, Duke of Bedford, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, emphasised the threat to Ireland, and therefore his opposition to sending troops from there to join Robert Clive in India: “It is very possible, under the favour of long nights, for the French to throw over in small crafts such a number of troops as may surprise Cork or other considerable seaports on the neighbouring coasts to them, or – which is still more dangerous – land such a body as may be sufficient in those popish and disaffected countries to make a place of arms”. Bedford added that the Irish population was discontented and that the British fleet could be shut up in the Channel by a westerly or a south-westerly wind.

Fears increased during the summer of 1759 as the scale of French plans were increasingly appreciated. In a repetition of 1744–6, when the French had planned to invade on behalf of the Jacobites, many expressed their lack of confidence in the likelihood of the British navy preventing an invasion. It was clear in 1759, however, that if the French invaded they would have to do so with substantial forces and – as there was no real prospect of a Jacobite rising – to conquer her.

Despite Jacobite claims of discontent in Britain and of support for their cause, national disaffection in Britain, and especially in Scotland, was less evident during the Seven Years’ War than in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8). This was due to greater British success in the war; to a military strategy that could more readily be presented as serving national goals; to the absence, after the formation of the Newcastle-Pitt ministry of 1757, of the political uncertainty and sense of betrayal that had characterised 1742–6; and lastly to the extent to which discontent was no longer linked with or translated into Jacobitism.

Alongside mounting British fears of the French, the latter faced grave difficulties in planning and preparing an invasion. The division of the main squadrons of the French navy between Brest and Toulon made it difficult to concentrate the covering force necessary to protect an invasion now planned for Scotland – and the blockading British squadrons were determined to maintain the division. Moreover, attempts were made to disrupt invasion preparations: Rear Admiral George Rodney attacked Le Havre with bomb vessels in July 1759 and blockaded the port for the rest of the year.

The Toulon fleet, under the Marquis de La Clue, sailed on 5 August, while the British Mediterranean squadron under Admiral Sir Edward Boscawen was refitting at Gibraltar. La Clue passed through the straits there, but Boscawen swiftly set to sea in pursuit. Boscawen caught up with his quarry on 18 August, south of Cape St Vincent on Portugal’s Algarve coast. He had eleven ships of the line to the French seven. Stubborn resistance by the rearmost French warship, the Centaure, held off the British while La Clue sailed the rest of his fleet into neutral waters. However, on the 19th, Boscawen violated Portuguese neutrality and launched a successful attack on the French fleet. Mortally wounded, La Clue ran his vessel ashore and burnt it to prevent capture. The outnumbered French lost a total of five ships: three captured and two destroyed. The remainder of the Toulon fleet was then blockaded in the Tagus.

It proved possible to send forces to mount overseas attacks while relying on the navy to thwart any French attack

Bad weather forced Admiral Sir Edward Hawke to lift his blockade of Brest in November 1759 and to take shelter in Torbay, but the French fleet, under the Comte de Conflans, was to fail in its attempt to reach Scotland via the west coast of Ireland.

Conflans could not sail direct for Scotland. Handicapped anyway by the wind and by a shortage of sailors, he had first to meet transports from Bordeaux and Nantes at the Morbihan in Quiberon Bay, and this led to a fatal delay for the French. As a result, Conflans, with his 21 ships of the line, was trapped by Hawke, with his 23, while still off the Breton coast on 20 November. It was then that he took the decision to seek shelter in the swells and shoals of the bay – a move that was to result in his fleet’s mauling at the hands of Admiral Hawke and the loss of his flagship.

Like Jutland in 1916, Quiberon Bay was a battle that could have decided the fate of the war had the British lost, but, unlike Jutland, it was a decisive victory. All possibility of a French invasion of Britain was shattered by these two naval successes. Five days earlier, the Marquess of Rockingham had written: “I had some conversation a few days ago with Mr Pitt, who I find still continues desirous that no strength (that can be had) should be now neglected for the security of this country. All the militias which are in readiness are called out”. Now, these preparations were not required.

Much of the remaining Brest fleet took refuge from Hawke’s ships in the river Vilaine further up Quiberon Bay and stayed there for the remainder of the war. Others took refuge further down the Atlantic coast in Rochefort. Meanwhile, political and financial support for the demoralised navy ebbed in France, and the British were left to take the initiative at sea.

Pitt’s gamble had paid off. Despite the greater strength of the French army, it proved possible, as for Churchill in the Second World War, to send forces to mount overseas attacks while relying on the navy to thwart any French attack. That this strategy was tried by the British on a number of occasions, indeed next in 1779 during the War of American Independence, did not mean that it was not highly risky. Yet, in 1759, the professionalism as well as the size of the British navy, the development of systems for effective blockade, and the degree of domestic support, all helped ensure that the crisis was brilliantly surmounted. These victories deserve to be as well remembered as others that saved Britain from invasion.

Jeremy Black is professor of history at the University of Exeter and author of Naval Power: A History of Warfare and the Sea from 1500 onwards (Palgrave, 2009).


The British navy and the Seven Years’ War

British naval success was not due to superior weaponry. Neither the ships nor their equipment were substantially different from those of the Bourbons, although the British had more dry docks and deep-sea sailors. Instead, the crucial factors were: a continuously high level of commitment to and expenditure on the navy; an ethos and policy of tactical aggression; and an effective use of the warships of the period within the constraints of naval warfare and technology.

Just as significantly, at a gut level, the British fought to win, and not just to survive for another day – and this quality was apparent in the victories that gave them the commanding position in the European world.

The navy could clearly be seen as a force designed to support what were generally seen as the national goals: the security of Britain and her colonies, and maritime hegemony. The political context explains the willingness of the British political nation to spend substantial sums in order to gain and maintain naval superiority, whereas in France and Spain there were no comparable ideologies and constituencies of support. This willingness accounts for British expenditure on new vessels and on maintenance, dockyards and equipment; indeed a continuous pattern of support that facilitated improvements in operational practice and tactical effectiveness.

By 1762 the navy had about 300 ships and 84,000 men, a size that reflected political support, and the growth of the population and economy – as well as a heavy shipbuilding programme during the Seven Years’ War. Britain’s large mercantile marine ensured that it had a greater reservoir of trained seamen than France and could therefore deploy more warships.

There was also good naval leadership, although the Navy Board of the 1750s did not always welcome innovation. An experienced admiral, Lord Anson, was first lord of the Admiralty from 1751–62, while admirals such as Boscawen, Hawke, Pocock and Rodney were bold and effective commanders. The superiority of French ships was outweighed by better British shiphandling.

Eight key moments in the crisis of 1759

1 May French West Indies island of Guadeloupe surrenders

1 August French army in Germany defeated by British at Minden

5 August Toulon fleet sails

18 August Battle of Lagos begins

19 August Toulon fleet defeated

13 September French defeated outside Quebec

16 November Admiral Hawke is informed that the Brest fleet is at sea

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20 November Battle of Quiberon Bay