Britain’s 10 most significant naval battles

Through victory and defeat, Britain was long regarded as a great naval superpower. Sam Willis selects the 10 battles that have effected the biggest changes to the course of the nation

The battle of the Nile, fought at night in the Abu Qir Bay near Alexandria. (Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Ask most people to consider Britain’s naval history and they’ll instinctively think of overwhelming victories, particularly in the period 1794–1806, when the British fought seven major actions – against the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish –  and won them all convincingly.

We’d have a better understanding of British sea power, however, if we were to consider the most significant battles rather than the most impressive victories – because they are by no means the same and the former includes failures as well as successes.

In compiling this list, I have therefore chosen those battles with the most tangible and broad historical results. Others would have made the cut if history had taken a different path. Consider, for example, the battle of Beachy Head in 1690, a clear defeat for the British and Dutch allies that left the French fleet of Louis XIV in control of the Channel. But the French, crippled by illness and indecision, failed to take advantage and launch an invasion that could have restored James II and VII to the British throne and returned the country to Catholicism…

1

The Glorious First of June

Date: 1 June 1794

Location: Mid-Atlantic

Combatants: Britain against France

Outcome: Both sides claimed victory

Key Figure: Admiral Earl Howe

This was the first fleet battle of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, fought at the height of the Reign of Terror. The French fleet left Brest to shepherd home a grain convoy from America. The food was crucial to France, which had been weakened by revolution and civil war.

Despite its name the battle was fought over almost a week of intermittent action, with significant large-scale battles fought on both 28 and 29 May, but the largest clash occurred on 1 June. The British fleet, led by the elderly but experienced Admiral Earl Howe, cut through the French line of battle at numerous points, disrupting their formation.

Jeanbon Saint-André, a representative of the de facto government, the Committee of Public Safety, sailed with the French fleet and energised its sailors who fought ferociously. Nevertheless, the British captured or destroyed seven enemy ships of the line – they could have taken four or five more – and captured thousands of French sailors. The morale and manpower of the French navy never recovered from this early blow, which had a direct bearing on the subsequent generation of British naval dominance.

The French navy, however, acquitted itself with some skill by luring the British away from the grain convoy, which made it safely to Brest. When linked with a series of victories on land, the Republic now considered itself militarily secure. The Reign of Terror ended and the French revolution survived.

2

The battle of the Chesapeake

Date:  5 September 1781

Location: Virginia Capes, America

Combatants: Britain against France

Outcome: Inconclusive

Key Figure: Charles Cornwallis

This was fought during the War of American Independence (1775–83) when the American rebels, with no significant naval power of their own, had allied with the French.

In 1781 the focus of American and French efforts shifted from New York to Yorktown in the Chesapeake Bay, which the British General Charles Cornwallis had occupied in the mistaken belief that a conquest of Virginia would bring the war to a conclusion. In reality, however, the British army remained vulnerable wherever the French could achieve local naval superiority. This is exactly what happened at Yorktown. The French fleet headed for the Chesapeake Bay and George Washington ordered his Franco-American army to Yorktown, to trap Cornwallis. The British fleet under Rear Admiral Thomas Graves was sent to attack the French fleet and relieve Cornwallis, and they met off the Virginia Capes.

British command failure led to an indecisive battle: Cornwallis could not be relieved and Yorktown fell. Cornwallis’s surrender was the decisive moment of the American revolution, affecting events in America, the West Indies and Europe. The will of the British to continue the fight for the colonies was broken.

3

The battle of Sluys

Date: 24 June 1340

Location: Sluys, Holland

Combatants: England against France, Castile and Genoa

Outcome: English victory

Key Figure: Edward III

This was the first naval battle of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) and the naval equivalent of Crecy or Agincourt – won by English longbowmen and armoured knights, but fighting from English ships. The French king, Philip VI, was preparing to invade England from Flanders and had been raiding the British coast at will. The English naval response was at first non-existent, and then very slow but, by 1340, the English had achieved a handful of successes against the raiding French, Castilian and Genoese galleys.

By midsummer, Edward III had united a force of requisitioned merchantmen on the east coast. When he set out across the Channel to Flanders, he was unaware that he was sailing towards a vast invasion army. But nor did Philip realise that the English were coming.

The English attacked from the east with the rising sun blinding the French crossbowmen while illuminating their own ships perfectly for the English archers. Even the most conservative estimates put the French losses somewhere around 190 ships and 16–18,000 men, including both of their admirals.

Such was the scale of the victory that the English joked the fish were speaking French because of the number of bodies in the sea. In fact, it was one of the most crushing victories in naval history. The French invasion fleet was destroyed, guaranteeing the safety of England and ensuring that the rest of the war would be fought on the continent.

4

The battle of Gravelines and the Spanish Armada

Date: 8 August 1588

Location: Gravelines, Flanders

Combatants: England against Spain

Outcome: Spanish fleet scattered

Key Figure: Sir Francis Drake

This was the turning point of the Armada campaign. Exasperated by Elizabethan foreign policy, the Spanish king, Philip II, launched a great Armada to restore the English throne to Catholicism.

Around 130 ships transporting nearly 19,000 men sailed from Lisbon, bound for the north coast of France where they were to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s invading army, 17,000 strong. Once sighted the Armada was harried by fierce English seamen like Sir Francis Drake, who had honed their fighting skill in pirate raids against Spanish wealth.

The Armada slowly sailed up the Channel in close formation, continually fighting off the English, until it anchored off Calais. There the English sent in their fireships. What followed is difficult to explain. The Spanish were well prepared for a fireship attack. They had set up a screen of small ships designed to intercept the fireships and tow them to safety. This was done with partial success and two were stopped. Six made it through but only six, and Calais Roads is a huge anchorage: there was more than enough room for the Spanish to manoeuvre out of the way and make it to safety. But the cohesion of the Spanish fleet disintegrated and they fled the anchorage in disarray.

The English attacked off Gravelines and forced the Armada up the Channel and out into the North Sea. The Spanish ships were all forced to travel home via Scotland and Ireland, waters few of their captains knew well. As a result, as many as 35 were wrecked on the way back to Spain. England remained safe, and Protestant.

5

The battles of Barfleur and La Hogue

Date: 29 May–4 June 1692

Location: Northern France

Combatants: England and Holland against France

Outcome: English victory

Key Figure: James II and VII

The Protestant Dutch prince, William, had seized the English throne in 1688 from the Catholic James II and VII. Now the French king, Louis XIV, was determined to put James back on the throne and he prepared an invasion.

The invasion fleet was met – and beaten off – in the Channel by a far larger English and Dutch force. Although neither side lost a ship in the battle, the next day the crippled French ships, driven ashore by their desperate crews, were burned by English seamen sent ashore in swarms of boats.

The French defended their ships to the last, and the hand-to-hand fighting in the shallows was vicious. Yet still 16 French men of war, some of the largest and most magnificent symbols of majesty that have ever been built, were destroyed, and with them Louis’ immediate plans to restore James to the English throne.

The most notable result of the battles was that England remained Protestant. Yet the clashes also left their mark on the French, who were forced to assume a new naval strategy – one that concentrated on attacking British trade rather than invasion.

From 1692, with the threat of French occupation lifted, Britain was able to concentrate on campaigns further afield. Much of the naval action that followed up to 1750 was conducted far from British waters, with a focus on the Caribbean.

6

The battle of the Nile

Date: 1–3 August 1798

Location: Aboukir Bay, Egypt

Combatants: Britain and France

Outcome: British victory

Key Figure: Napoleon

In the summer of 1798 Napoleon set his heart on attacking British India via a conquest of Egypt in the crumbling Ottoman empire, and the British were determined to frustrate his plans. Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson was sent in pursuit of the French invasion fleet of 13 ships of the line, 280 transports and 48,662 troops, which had sailed from Toulon, bound for Egypt via Malta. Napoleon conquered Malta and then sailed for Egypt, landing his troops near Alexandria.

Nelson had been unable to find the French fleet because of a lack of frigates. He missed the disembarkation of the French army at Alexandria but eventually found the warships at anchor in Aboukir Bay, near the Rosetta entrance to the Nile. The French commander, Vice Admiral de Brueys, had neglected to take the necessary precautions for defending a fleet at anchor and only the guns on one side of the ships were prepared for action. Nelson and his captains saw their opportunity and sailed between the French and land, engaging them on both sides. In the resulting carnage, 11 French ships of the line and two frigates were taken or sunk and 2,000–3,000 Frenchmen died or were injured. The British, meanwhile, lost only 218 sailors dead and no ships.

The Royal Navy dominated the Mediterranean for the rest of the war and Napoleon’s Egyptian army was cut off, ultimately doomed by its isolation. Napoleon was forced to abandon his Egyptian campaign. His restless focus returned to France, where he seized power.

7

The battle of Taranto

Date: 11 November 1940

Location: Taranto, Italy

Combatants: Britain and Italy

Outcome: British victory 

Key Figure: Andrew Cunningham

The Second World War entered a dramatic new phase when the Germans occupied France in June 1940. The Mediterranean became a crucial war zone where, if the German navy was united with their French or Italian equivalents, the Royal Navy would be outnumbered.

The British destroyed the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, leaving the Italians as the next target. Andrew Cunningham, the British commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean, had a novel plan to deal with the Italians. Just after 9pm on a cold Mediterranean night, 21 Swordfish torpedo bombers took off from the flight deck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious and headed for the Italian naval base at Taranto. The attack cost the British only two planes and 11 torpedoes, but the damage caused was huge by comparison. Three battleships were sunk at their moorings, halving in one strike the effective fighting force of the Italian navy and instantly tipping the balance of maritime power in the Mediterranean towards the Allies.

It was also the first successful attack by aircraft on a major fleet in harbour. It demonstrated that the aircraft carrier was now a highly efficient and effective instrument of sea power. A new era of warfare at sea had been born and the world was watching. One of those who studied the battle carefully was Isoroku Yamamoto, who mimicked the British attack on Taranto with his own attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which brought America into the war.

8

The battle of Quiberon Bay

Date: 20 November 1759

Location: Quiberon, France

Combatants: Britain and France

Outcome: British victory

Key Figure: Admiral Sir Edward Hawke

This was fought at the height of the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), when Britain was under a significant threat of invasion. After several early setbacks in the war the French risked everything on an invasion of England. While the French gathered troops and transports in Brittany, the British blockaded the French coast with such efficiency that the Brest fleet had not left port for three years.

Such inactivity became too much for its commander, the courageous Comte de Conflans, to bear. He proposed attacking a small British squadron blockading the invasion transports in the Morbihan, and was given permission. But, as soon as they left Brest, the French were discovered by a much larger British squadron under the command of the fiery Edward Hawke, who chased them into the rock-strewn Quiberon Bay, where the French thought they would be safe.

The ensuing battle has no parallel in naval history. In no other were so many ships wrecked, and never was such a bold decision made as that by Hawke when he chased the French against a lee shore in a rising gale as night fell. There he destroyed or captured seven French ships and shattered their invasion plans.

British naval superiority remained unchallenged until the War of American Independence in 1775. One contemporary summed it up by declaring: “The glory of the British flag has been nobly supported, while that of the enemy is vanished into empty air.”

9

The battle of Trafalgar

Date: 21 October 1805

Location: Off Cape Trafalgar, Spain

Combatants: Britain against France and Spain

Outcome: British victory

Key Figure: Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson

This most famous of battles was fought more than two years after the collapse of the Peace of Amiens, which divided up the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. By then Napoleon had long since abandoned plans for an invasion of England and yet the French and Spanish navies, vast if combined, still posed a serious threat to British trade and British sea power, and they still had the potential of projecting Napoleonic land-power worldwide. Nelson caught them off the south-western tip of Spain and cut through their fleet in two places allowing superior British gunnery, seamanship and endurance to overwhelm the dislocated French and Spanish fleet.

The allied fleet lost 21 ships of the line and the British none, suffered more than 3,000 dead and the British less than 500, but one of those was Nelson himself, whose death elevated him to the status of national hero. The French rapidly rebuilt their navy but the ships were of poor quality. The Spanish navy, already in decline when Trafalgar was fought, never recovered, thus changing the shape of European naval power forever.

The Russian navy became the second most significant naval power, leading to several Baltic naval campaigns. Although a number of engagements between small squadrons followed, no European naval power was again prepared to face the British in a large-scale open-water fleet battle.

Trafalgar thus heralded the end of the era of fleet warfare under sail while Nelson’s death shaped a global perception of British naval power which influenced the development and strategy of navies well into the 20th century.

10

The battle of Jutland

Date: 31 May–1 June 1916

Location: North Sea

Combatants: Britain and Germany

Outcome: Both sides claimed victory

Key Figure: Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

Jutland saw the largest naval engagement of the First World War and the first and only meeting between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer had devised two operations against British shipping off the coast of Denmark, and against the English east coast, both designed to provoke the Royal Navy into battle. The Admiralty, however, had been reading his wireless signals, and on the night of 30 May it informed the commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, that something significant was afoot.

He sailed in secret into the North Sea with the main British battle fleet.

Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty sailed to meet Jellicoe with a squadron of fast battlecruisers. Beatty confronted the Germans first and then lured them towards Jellicoe. Both sides missed numerous opportunities and the British suffered serious losses, not least the destruction of the battlecruisers Indefatigable and Queen Mary, and the loss of three more armoured cruisers, eight destroyers and the lives of over 6,000 British sailors.

The Germans lost roughly half the number of men and half the tonnage of ships but only six of their vessels escaped damage. More importantly, both sides knew there would not be another fleet battle because the Germans could not risk it. The High Seas Fleet was forced back into port and the rest of the war at sea focused entirely on the U-boat threat.

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Dr Sam Willis is a maritime historian and archaeologist. He is the author of The Glorious First of June (Quercus, 2011). Follow Sam on Twitter @navalhistoryguy and visit www.sam-willis.com