Thursday, April 11, 2013

This Day in History: Apr 11, 1809: Battle of the Basque Roads between France and the United Kingdom starts


The Battle of the Basque Roads, also Battle of Aix Roads (French: Bataille de l'île d'Aix, also Affaire des brûlots, rarely Bataille de la rade des Basques) was a naval battle during the Napoleonic Wars off the Island of Aix. On the night of 11 April 1809 Captain Lord Cochrane led a British fireship attack against a powerful squadron of French ships anchored in the Basque Roads. In the attack all but two of the French ships were driven ashore. The subsequent engagement lasted three days but failed to destroy the entire French fleet.[1]

Cochrane accused the British commanding officer, Admiral James Gambier, of being reluctant to press the attack. Gambier demanded a court-martial, and was duly exonerated; Cochrane's career in the Royal Navy ended. The French Navy continued to operate against the British from the Basque Roads until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.


The Basque Roads are a sheltered bay on the Biscay shore of France, bounded by the Île d'Oléron to the west and the Île de Ré to the north. The port of La Rochelle stands at the northeast corner of the roads, and the important town of Rochefort is near the mouth of the Charente River to the south.

During the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal the Duke of Wellington depended on maritime supply. The French fleet in the Basque Roads operated against the British supply ships. To protect the convoys, the Royal Navy maintained a blockade of the Basque Roads, but this was expensive and never wholly effective.
In late October 1808, Napoléon sent Decrès orders for the squadrons at Lorient and Rochefort to deliver reinforcements and supplies to Martinique. The continual presence of large British squadrons, however, impeded their departure. On 7 February 1809, Napoleon ordered Admiral Willaumez to raise the blockades with the Brest fleet to allow these small squadrons to make their way to Martinique. Two weeks later, Willaumez finally set out with eight ships-of-the-line and two frigates towards Lorient. Although he chased off the British ships stationed there, calms prevented the Lorient squadron from weighing anchor; they eventually did so, after the fleet had departed, leading to the Battle of Les Sables-d'Olonne. Fearful of being caught by the British, Willaumez continued on his way south to Rochefort, but the Rochefort squadron was in no shape to sail, having been recently ravaged by sickness. With the subsequent arrival of a large British fleet, Willaumez was trapped in Rochefort.

A British squadron arrived on the scene and held the French there until Gambier arrived with the rest of the Channel fleet to impose a blockade. The British Admiralty became concerned about the concentration of such a large segment of the French fleet in one place. If the ships escaped they could ferry supplies to Napoleon’s Peninsular forces, making it very difficult for Britain to return to the Peninsula.
With these reasons in mind, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, proposed an attack on the French fleet at anchor using fire ships. Cochrane's superior officer, Lord Gambier, commanding the Channel Fleet, was opposed to the plan, calling it "a horrible and anti-Christian mode of warfare".

Cochrane was given twenty-one fireships to command, but he was also focusing on his own invention: explosion ships, which were basically fireships packed tightly with explosive powder.

Gambier's opposition and Mulgrave's persuasiveness meant that full responsibility for executing the plan fell to Lord Cochrane.

The attack

On the evening of April 11, 1809 Cochrane led the way into Basque Roads with two explosion ships, followed by 25 other ships. Because of delays resulting from Gambier’s indecision, the French were alert to the British plan. Admiral Allemand, who had replaced Willaumez, had struck the topmasts and yards of the big ships, stowed their sails to reduce the amount of exposed flammable material, and placed a stout boom across the harbor entrance. Allemand had anchored his ships in an apparently impregnable position drawn up in two lines between the Ile d'Aix to the northeast and Ilôt Boyard to the southwest, that were defended by gun batteries.

On the night of April 11, 1809 Cochrane floated in on the flood-tide aboard the foremost explosion vessel with the other explosion ships following. Once he had reached the boom, Cochrane lit the fuse of the vessel and he and his handful of men swarmed into their boat, only to discover that they had left their pet dog behind, which they went back to rescue. They managed to escape with their dog just in time. A "boom" of heavy spars and chains the French had placed to prevent the British ships from engaging the French, more than a mile long, was broken in several places by the explosion ships. Unable to see clearly in the smoke, the panicked French gunners fired into the line of protecting frigates. Anchor cables were hastily cut to escape the surge of flame, and without sails, the ships piled up on the shoals.

Cochrane described the attack as follows:
"On the 11th of April, it blew hard, with a high sea. As all preparations were complete, I did not consider the state of the weather a justifiable impediment to the attack; so that, after nightfall, the officers who volunteered to command the fireships were assembled on board the Caledonia, and supplied with instructions according to the plan previously laid down by myself. The Imperieuse had proceeded to the edge of the Boyart Shoal, close to which she anchored with an explosion-vessel made fast to her stern, it being my intention, after firing the one of which I was about to take charge, to return to her for the other, to be employed as circumstances might require. At a short distance from the Imperieuse were anchored the frigates Aigle, Unicorn, and Pallas, for the purpose of receiving the crews of the fireships on their return, as well as to support the boats of the fleet assembled alongside the Caesar, to assist the fireships. The boats of the fleet were not, however, for some reason or other made use of at all.
"Having myself embarked on board the largest explosion-vessel, accompanied by Lieut. Bissel and a volunteer crew of four men only, we led the way to the attack. The night was dark, and, as the wind was fair, though blowing hard, we soon neared the estimated position of the advanced French ships, for it was too dark to discern them. Judging our distance, therefore, as well as we could, with regard to the time the fuse was calculated to burn, the crew of four men entered the gig, under the direction of Lieut. Bissel, whilst I kindled the portfires, and then, descending into the boat, urged the men to pull for their lives, which they did with a will, though, as wind and sea were strong against us, without making the expected progress.
"To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn fifteen minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of fifteen hundred barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness."

The follow-up

 When Cochrane returned to the British fleet, he found that the second attack — 20 fireships — was in complete disarray. Only four of those ships managed to reach the enemy's position, and they did no direct damage. Cochrane was outraged, reckoning that the fireships could have completely destroyed the French squadron in the confusion following the explosion; instead a series of mishaps took place including firing the ships too soon, missing the enemy squadron, with one fireship even grounding itself.

The fireships missed their target, badly; but they still inflicted considerable indirect damage. When the French sighted the fireships taking flame several miles away, they believed they were seeing more explosion-vessels at much closer range, and wreaked much havoc upon themselves in their attempts to escape. Most of the ships either cut their anchor cables and drifted ashore, or else hoisted sail with equally disastrous results.
Cochrane wrote:
"At daylight on the morning of the 12th, not a spar of the boom was anywhere visible, and, with the exception of the Foudroyant and Cassard, the whole of the enemy's vessels were helplessly aground. The flagship, Océan, a 120-gun three-decker, drawing the most water, lay outermost on the north-west edge of the Palles Shoal, nearest the deep water, where she was most exposed to attack; whilst all, by the fall of the tide, were lying on their bilge, with their bottoms completely exposed to shot, and therefore beyond the possibility of resistance."

Battle continues

Throughout the morning of 12 April, Cochrane signalled Lord Gambier to attack the paralyzed French squadron. (Gambier was 14 miles offshore with the blockading fleet; Cochrane had one frigate under his command.) Finally, in desperation, at 13:00 Cochrane allowed his ship to drift toward shore, coming under fire of the land-based fortifications, trying to compel Gambier to send ships to aid Cochrane's frigate.

The strategy worked; at 13:30, seven British ships came in, and Cochrane spent the rest of the day capturing and destroying French ships.

Much to Cochrane's displeasure, on 13 April, the other ships returned to Lord Gambier's position offshore, and Cochrane ignored repeated orders from Gambier to also disengage. Cochrane instead destroyed more French vessels before finally obeying Gambier's signals, and the battle ended.


Cochrane returned to Britain a popular hero, but he had already made himself unpopular in important places in the British government, and the Admiralty chose to give Lord Gambier credit for the victory. Gambier and Cochrane were both members of Parliament, and when a vote of thanks to Gambier was proposed, Cochrane charged that Gambier had failed to follow up the attack at Basque Roads. Gambier demanded a court-martial of himself, to clear those charges, and was acquitted.

Cochrane's naval career was apparently over, the Admiralty did not give him another ship, and he returned his main attentions to Parliament. In 1814 he was convicted of stock market manipulation; he was sentenced to the pillory and a year's imprisonment; expelled from Parliament and the Royal Navy; immediately re-elected to Parliament from his district; popular support and acclaim was so strident that the pillory was never used in Britain again, and he received a royal pardon; and Cochrane became the head of the Navies of Chile, Brazil, and Greece during their wars of independence.

In 1832 Cochrane was returned to the Royal Navy as a Rear Admiral, serving with distinction and eventually being promoted to Admiral.


Author C.S. Forester makes reference to the incident in Flying Colours, one of his series of Hornblower novels:
"As the midshipman went out again Hardy turned back to Hornblower. 'I must report your arrival to His Lordship.' 'Is he still in command?" asked Hornblower, startled. It was a surprise to him that the Government had left Admiral Lord Gambier in command of the Channel fleet for three years, despite the disastrous waste of opportunity at the Basque Roads. 'He hauls down his flag next month," said Hardy, gloomily. (Most officers turned gloomy when discussing "Dismal Jimmy.") 'They whitewashed him at the court-martial, and had to leave him his full three years.'"

On the French side, the loss of four ships and two frigates was blamed on captains, four of whom were court-martialed. One was relieved of duty and one, Lafon, of Calcutta, executed by firing squad. Allemand's role was never questioned, much to the outrage of the officers and the open disapproval of Admiral Martin; he was swiftly transferred to Toulon and put in charge of the Mediterranean fleet.


Following the devastating battle of the Basque Roads, Napoleon ordered the reinforcement of the fortification of the area of the mouth of the Charente. In 1810, he ordered the re-furbishing of the Fort de la Rade on Ile d'Aix,[2] as well as the construction of Fort Enet.


  1. ^ Jaques, p.19
  2. ^ The Companion Guide to Gascony and the Dordogne Richard Barber p.50 [1]


  • Tony Jaques Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: A Guide to 8,500 Battles from Antiquity Through the Twenty-First Century Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007 ISBN 0-313-33537-0

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