Naval Operations, British

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Naval Operations, British

NAVAL OPERATIONS, BRITISH. In the eighteenth century the Royal Navy was Britain's principal instrument of foreign policy. It was a powerful, complex, and ponderous institution. More than two centuries of war had dramatically increased its technological sophistication, on the one hand, and had burdened it with dogmatic tradition, on the other. The Royal Navy's warships made their sixteenth-century ancestors look like ornate toys. But the tactical and strategic thinking that governed those ships' behavior had stagnated for several generations.

The great event of naval history was the sea battle, and the professional bible of the British admiral was a document called the Fighting Instructions, which told him how to bring about such an event. The opposing fleets would form themselves into long, straight "lines of battle" and spend a grisly afternoon slamming cannonballs into each other, giving one side decisive victory and turning some admiral into a national hero. That, at least, was how the navy, the government, and the public perceived British naval history. The truth was considerably different.

In 1775 Britain had spent thirty-one of the preceding ninety years at war with France. During that period the fleet action on the classical model—two parallel lines of battle exchanging broadsides with decisive results—had never taken place. When rival fleets did encounter each other, things seldom went according to the Fighting Instructions. Either the French would withdraw to leeward, a land mass would intrude at an awkward point, or the British formation would fall apart. The blame usually would be attributed to either French cowardice or some British admiral's ineptitude. Few in the British naval establishment considered the possibility that their concepts of strategy and tactics might be flawed. Still fewer bothered to consider how an eighteenth-century navy could suppress a revolution.

The administration of the Royal Navy was presided over by the lords of the Admiralty, headed by John, fourth earl of Sandwich. When word reached the Admiralty office (in late May 1775, five weeks after the fact) that the Revolutionary War had started, they had to confront an unusual problem: how best to employ the world's largest navy against an enemy that had no navy at all. The two obvious answers were, first, for the navy to collaborate with the army in amphibious operations, and second, to set up a naval blockade of the rebellious colonies. The Admiralty instructed its senior officer in North America, Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, to carry out those two tasks.

Both sorts of operation turned out to be more complex than expected. Graves never had enough ships at his disposal to hinder colonial trade significantly. He did launch one amphibious raid, on the village of Falmouth in northern Massachusetts (later Maine), on 18 October 1775, but the incident turned into a public relations disaster without accomplishing anything of military consequence.


In 1776 Vice Admiral Richard Lord Howe and his brother, General William Howe, took over the British command in North America. With the largest combined military and naval force Britain had ever sent overseas at their disposal, they were expected to end the Revolution by means of brute force. General Howe was to capture New York City, and Admiral Howe was to clamp a blockade on all the ports of the colonies and destroy the rebels' economic capacity.

Historians have been unable to figure out why the Howe brothers failed. One scholar, Ira Gruber, has suggested that the Howes' fascination with diplomacy led to their downfall. They had insisted on being named commissioners of the peace, with authority to negotiate a treaty on almost any terms (except American independence). According to Gruber, the Howes were so determined to resolve the conflict peaceably that they sacrificed several military opportunities to win it. The admiral, for instance, ordered his warships to seize only those merchant ships that could be identified with certainty as carrying cargoes to support the rebel military effort. Peaceable merchantmen that were carrying merchandise to loyal businessmen were not to be molested, and the colonial fishing fleet was allowed to carry on business as usual.

The scarcity of Howe papers makes it impossible to prove or disprove Gruber's theory, but in any case the British blockade never achieved the government's objectives. Howe constantly begged his superiors to send him more ships. Like every other naval officer in every war, he never got as many ships as he thought he needed. Even if it had been carried out with the vigor Sandwich wanted, though, the blockade probably would have been too porous to undermine the rebel war effort.

In the campaign of 1777, the Royal Navy got another key assignment: transporting a large segment of the army from New York to some point within striking range of the colonies' largest city, Philadelphia. The initial plan was to approach it via Delaware Bay, but the rebels had established an elaborate series of defenses and obstructions in its mouth. The Howes therefore decided to take their fleet to Philadelphia by way of Chesapeake Bay.

The voyage up the Chesapeake was skillfully executed but, even by eighteenth-century standards, depressingly slow. By the time the army landed at the northern end of the bay it was late August. General Howe made relatively quick work of taking Philadelphia, but in the meantime, some two hundred miles to the north, the British army that General John Burgoyne's army had brought down from Canada was expiring. On 17 October 1777 Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga.


When France declared war on Britain on 13 March 1778, the fundamental nature of the conflict changed. For its first three years it had been a relatively small-scale fight between a rebellious element of a colonial society and an imperial government. Henceforth it would have to be perceived as the latest in the series of dynastic struggles that had dominated Europe for generations. North America had become one theater in a world war.

It would be, to a large extent, a naval war, and the various offices along Whitehall initially tried to fight it by adopting the same strategy that had won the last one. Tradition and experience suggested that the naval effort should be centered on Europe, with naval squadrons blockading the French fleets in their Atlantic and Mediterranean bases. Smaller British forces could be sent off to conduct limited offensives against the French possessions in the East and West Indies and to foil any enemy thrust that might develop.

Four days after the French declaration of war, the Admiralty sent Lord Howe a secret dispatch: "We judge it necessary … to acquaint your Lordship that the object of the War being now changed, and the Contest in America being a secondary consideration, the principal object must be the distressing [of] France and defending His Majesty's own possessions against Hostile Attempts." The British war effort in North America was to become strictly defensive. The bulk of the Royal Navy would return to the role in which it was most comfortable: fighting the French (and, eventually, the Spanish as well) in European waters.


On 23 July 1778 a British fleet encountered a French fleet off the island of Ushant, near the mouth of the English Channel. The ensuing battle, like most such affairs, was indecisive; its chief consequence was a feud between two British admirals, Augustus Keppel and Sir Hugh Palliser.

Another British force, commanded by Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, spent the following summer glowering sullenly at a combined French and Spanish squadron under the comte d'Orvilliers. Hardy, suffering from advanced age, ill health, and a remarkable lack of energy, made little effort to bring his enemy to action, and d'Orvilliers eventually decided to return to port. No Franco-Spanish invasion ever materialized.

In the western hemisphere both the British and the French had to operate in two distinct but interrelated theaters: North America and the West Indies. For the rest of the war the navies played an intricate game of chess on two overlapping boards, with the lucrative sugar islands as the stakes. It was a strange, complicated war, with armies fighting repeatedly over the same real estate and navies transporting the armies, escorting and pursuing convoys, and occasionally fighting battles that ended before either admiral could claim victory. All participants had to pay heed to one inescapable fact of nature: between August and November of each year the war must take an intermission. No sane naval officer tried to navigate in the Caribbean during the hurricane season.

The first move was made by a French admiral, the comte d'Estaing. In July 1778 d'Estaing brought twelve ships-of-the-line to New York. Lord Howe, though outnumbered and outgunned, defended the harbor so skillfully that d'Estaing retreated. He then proceeded to Narragansett Bay and made a half-hearted attempt to seize control of Rhode Island. Howe followed him, and the two fleets were on the verge of fighting a battle in Long Island Sound when a storm came up and separated them. D'Estaing then withdrew to Boston.

The Admiralty had dispatched a squadron under Vice Admiral John Byron in pursuit of d'Estaing. After one of the most difficult crossings on record, Byron arrived at New York in September 1778. Lord Howe, disgusted and enervated by the turn the war in North America had taken, resigned his command and sailed for England. A few weeks later D'Estaing, having repaired the storm damage his ships had suffered, decided, in accordance with his orders, to take his fleet to the West Indies. Byron followed.


The command of the Royal Navy's forces in North America thereupon fell onto the shoulders of the unimpressive Vice Admiral James Gambier. He happened to be on hand when, during the winter of 1778–1779, the British military effort began to shift in the direction it would take for the remainder of the war. The government was concerned about the safety of the southern colonies. If, as expected, Spain were to enter the war, its bases in the Caribbean and at New Orleans would be excellent staging areas for an attack on Georgia or the Carolinas.

On 29 December 1778 a naval squadron under Commodore Hyde Parker the Younger landed a force of Hessians, Loyalists, and Scottish Highlanders on the coast of Georgia. The army commander, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell, promptly took the city of Savannah and made himself master of Georgia, thereby returning one of the thirteen colonies to British rule.

To command in the "secondary" theater of North America, the Admiralty next selected Vice Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, an officer of limited experience, ill health, and advanced age. His tenure in command was characterized by frequent accusations of ineptitude and his colossal feud with his army counterpart, General Sir Henry Clinton. Arbuthnot seems to have found Clinton an irritating and uncooperative colleague; Clinton concluded that Arbuthnot was incompetent and either out of his mind or hopelessly senile.

The two did manage to collaborate effectively in one of the most important British victories of the war: the capture of Charleston, South Carolina. By this time the Royal Navy had worked out most of the problems involved in landing an army on a hostile shore. The siege of Charleston took more than four months, but the city's surrender, on 12 May 1780, gave the British a major base of operations in the southern colonies.


In the meantime another squadron of French ships-of-the-line, commanded by the chevalier de Ternay, was sailing for North America. When intelligence of that development reached London, the Admiralty placed six ships-of-the-line under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Graves. As Byron had chased d'Estaing, Graves was to chase Ternay.

Ternay was hardly a dynamic officer, but his arrival in North America had far-reaching consequences. His seven French ships-of-the-line anchored in the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island—which the British had evacuated—on 10 July 1780, landed six thousand troops under the comte de Rochambeau.

Arbuthnot, with the newly arrived Graves as his second in command, spent eight months sailing back and forth in Long Island Sound, keeping Ternay's ships under blockade. Ternay himself died of an undiagnosed fever shortly before Christmas. His successor was Commodore Souchet des Touches, a younger man of considerable ability. On 8 March 1781 des Touches took his squadron to sea, carrying a detachment of Rochambeau's army. The French objective was Chesapeake Bay, where des Touches intended to land the troops and attack a British force under the newly recruited Brigadier General Benedict Arnold.

Arbuthnot caught up with des Touches off the mouth of the Chesapeake on 16 March 1781. The ensuing Battle of Cape Henry was typical of its species: a murky affair of dirty weather, misinterpreted signal flags, and missed opportunities. Des Touches was a skilled officer who did not want to fight—the most difficult sort of adversary to defeat. At the end of the day Arbuthnot was in possession of the battlefield, but the French fleet sailed back toward Rhode Island with minimal damage.


The powerful British battle fleet stationed in the West Indies was known as the Leeward Islands Squadron. From 1779 onward it was commanded by Britain's foremost naval hero of the day, Admiral Sir George Rodney. On 3 February 1781, having been informed that the States General of Holland had entered the war on the American side, Rodney seized the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The capture of that tiny but wealthy island set into motion a series of naval events that led directly to American independence.

The two officers in charge of British naval affairs at the most crucial juncture of the naval war were thrust into the historical limelight by accident. On 4 July 1781 Admiral Arbuthnot sailed for England, turning the North American Squadron over to Thomas Graves. On 1 August, Rodney, having spent the past six months snapping up and condemning merchant ships that had sailed into his arms at St. Eustatius, also departed for home—largely because, with the St. Eustatius prize money due to land in his bank account, his financial affairs demanded his attention. Rodney took three ships-of-the-line with him and sent another to Jamaica for repairs. He left the remainder of the Leeward Islands Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood.

The French naval force in the Caribbean consisted of twenty-four ships-of-the-line commanded by the comte de Grasse. Rodney's departure coincided with the beginning of the hurricane season. Calculating that de Grasse might take some of his ships to North America, Rodney ordered Hood to look for them.


Hood, not a man to loiter while his enemy was on the move, made his way up the American coast as rapidly as he could. He paused briefly at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, where seven thousand troops under Charles Lord Cornwallis were establishing a post at the mouth of the York River. Seeing no sign of de Grasse, Hood continued on to New York. Arriving there on 28 August, he introduced himself to Graves and told him that a French fleet was operating somewhere off the coast.

Hood was junior to Graves, so when the two combined their forces, the latter was in command. Their nineteen ships-of-the-line sailed from New York on 31 August and headed south, intending to find de Grasse and fight a battle with him. The British arrived off the Chesapeake Capes on 5 September 1781 to find that de Grasse's entire fleet was anchored just inside the bay.

The Battle of the Chesapeake was one of the most important naval actions in history. Tactically, it was remarkable only in that the British tactical system worked even less efficiently than usual. The opposing fleets arranged themselves into more-or-less parallel lines of battle, intent on deciding the outcome with their great guns. The ships in the British van grappled with their French opposite numbers in accordance with the Fighting Instructions, but the rear division, under Hood's command, failed to become engaged. Afterward, Graves claimed Hood had ignored a signal ordering his division into action; Hood claimed Graves had flown an incomprehensible combination of signal flags.

The outcome of the battle was tactically indecisive but strategically crucial. Several ships on both sides were damaged; one British ship had to be scuttled. The fleets remained in sight of each other for four days, drifting gradually away from the Chesapeake as their crews worked to repair the damage.

On the morning of 10 September the French vanished. Graves sent frigates to look for them and discovered that de Grasse had anchored his fleet in a powerful position blocking entrance to the bay. Having fought a traditional battle to a draw and seeing no likelihood of winning another one, Graves took his fleet back to New York.

While Graves, Hood, and de Grasse were fighting the Battle of the Chesapeake, the Franco-American army under George Washington and the comte de Rochambeau was marching headlong to the southward. Its target was Cornwallis's little army, which had dug in around the village of Yorktown.

Graves and General Clinton worked up an elaborate plan to break the siege of Yorktown. On 19 October 1781 the biggest British naval force ever seen in North American waters sailed from New York. Embarked on board the warships were more than seven thousand troops. Clinton and Graves intended to force their way through de Grasse's fleet, land the troops at Yorktown, and relieve Cornwallis. It was a desperate scheme but, if nothing else, the War of American Independence would end with an epic sea and land action.

The great battle, however, never took place. On the same day the fleet sailed from New York, Cornwallis surrendered.


On the morning of 12 April 1782, near a West Indies archipelago called the Saintes, Rodney caught up with de Grasse. The two commanders arranged their fleets in the standard lines of battle. A stroke of luck, however, kept the Battle of the Saintes from becoming one more in the list of indecisive eighteenth-century sea fights. A gap appeared in the French line, and several of Rodney's ships went through it to assault a section of the French formation from both sides simultaneously. By sunset, five French ships-of-the-line had surrendered.


Rodney's victory gave British diplomats a powerful card to play during the peace negotiations, ensuring that Britain would keep its possessions in the West Indies. The Saintes also obscured, temporarily, the fact that the Royal Navy had lost one of the great naval wars of the eighteenth century. Some of the reasons had to do with ineptitude and bad luck. Others were rooted deep in the British military and naval establishment.

Neither the earl of Sandwich, Lord George Germain, nor anyone else in the British government ever produced a coherent scheme for fighting the naval war. In its early stages the Revolution presented problems that the most original naval thinking probably would have been unable to solve. But from 1778 onward, the Royal Navy was fighting the war it had been built to fight, and it found that conflict just as difficult to win.

The administration's decision to treat the American theater as secondary seemed a shrewd and dynamic move. The government failed to realize, however, that such decisions could not be taken unilaterally. The French made North America a center of their military effort because that was the only theater where their alliance with the United States could benefit them. The British let the French take the naval initiative in North America and failed, until the fact had been brought to their attention in the most brutal manner imaginable, to realize that giving up that initiative might mean losing the colonies.

The Admiralty relied on what may be called the "detachment theory," assuming that if the two belligerents had about the same number of ships-of-the-line in the same hemisphere, things would eventually work out in Britain's favor. Such thinking ignored the realities of naval warfare. Fleets moved fast and communications were slow. After the enemy had been handed the opportunity to take the offensive, the only effective way to frustrate him was to defend every place at which he might strike, and that was impossible. To chase him in the hope of catching him before he struck anywhere was to invite disaster. The Battle of the Chesapeake was the product of personality clashes, coincidences, and remarkable international cooperation between the Americans and the French. But it would not have taken a great strategic brain to figure out that something of the sort was bound to happen eventually.

Eight years of fighting failed to persuade the government to establish a clearly defined, understandable chain of command. Sir George Rodney's assertion that one general and one admiral should command in America and the West Indies fell on deaf ears. Furthermore, no one seems to have suggested that either the admiral or the general in North America be directed to take orders from the other. Asking two individuals whose professional reputations were in constant jeopardy to collaborate harmoniously under outdated orders that came from three thousand miles away was asking the near impossible.

The British land and naval commanders suffered from a misconception of how this particular war worked. William Howe and Henry Clinton tried to win it by occupying geographic objectives, thereby avoiding the decisive battlefield encounter with Washington's army that probably offered the best chance of British victory. In Europe that strategy might have made sense, but neither the generals, the admirals, nor their superiors in London realized a basic truth about the War of American Independence: there was no geographic objective that the rebels could not afford to lose. During the course of the war the British army, with the Royal Navy's assistance, took, and held for some prolonged period, every major city in the colonies. Yet the war continued—and the longer it continued, the harder it was for the British to win.

While the generals were looking for ways to occupy real estate without fighting battles, the admirals were searching for the opportunity to fight sea battles. A century after the Revolution, Alfred Thayer Mahan, the most influential of naval philosophers, articulated the theory that the sea battle was the centerpiece of naval warfare. The British admirals of the eighteenth century, though they never voiced such a doctrine as coherently as Mahan did, probably had some notion that destroying the French fleet would let them get on with the business of suppressing the Revolution. But in the war's early stages the Royal Navy's command of the sea had been uncontested, and Britain had found the commodity almost useless. Little if any evidence suggests that a British victory in a naval battle with the French would have prevented, or even significantly delayed, American independence.

In any case, British doctrine almost guaranteed that no such victory would take place. The Royal Navy, like most of its European counterparts, operated on the basis of tactical theories based on the uniquely simple strategic realities of the Anglo-Dutch Wars. The War of American Independence established that those theories would not work in any other context. The concept of the line of battle was predicated on the assumption that the opposing admirals would have identical strategic objectives and would try to fight a battle as a means of achieving them. In the wars between Britain and France that situation rarely, if ever, existed. The basic naval tactic of European navies, the line of battle, was successful in making defeat unlikely. Richard Howe, Marriot Arbuthnot, and Thomas Graves merely committed the standard sin of their generation in failing to realize that the line of battle also made victory almost impossible.

Asking a navy to suppress a revolution was like asking a whale to catch a bird: the excess of force was ludicrous but the inevitable outcome was frustration. The War of American Independence subjected the Royal Navy's human and material resources to demands that they simply could not meet. The navy was asked to meet French and Spanish invasion threats, defend Gibraltar and India, maintain supply lines between England and the West Indies, protect British commerce from privateers and cruisers—and simultaneously help the army fight a war in North America. Until the last moment the war hung in the balance, for the rebel military effort had problems of its own. Whether the British could have won the war is debatable. But it is reasonable to suspect that a final British victory would have occurred not because of the Royal Navy but in spite of it.

SEE ALSO Arbuthnot, Marriot; Byron, John; Chesapeake Capes; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; Falmouth, Massachusetts; Gambier, Baron James; Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de; Graves, Samuel; Hood, Samuel; Howe, Richard; Parker, Sir Hyde, Jr.; Rodney, George Bridges; Sandwich, John Montagu, fourth earl of; Ternay, Charles Louis d'Arsac, chevalier de; Yorktown Campaign.


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