The origins of the ‘Breaking the Line’ tactic are cloaked in ambiguity; its true pioneer hotly contended. Military Times traces the life and naval career of one possible contender, Admiral George Brydges Rodney.
In the narrow stretch of water between Guadeloupe and Dominica, the dismasted French warship, Zelé, drifts helplessly towards the Îles des Sainte
It is daybreak on 12 April 1782, and although neither admiral knows it, the stage is being set for one of the most significant naval battles in British history. On this day, an unprecedented tactic would secure the Royal Navy’s victory – the tactic which would deliver its greatest triumph 23 years later at Trafalgar.
Whether Rodney was the pioneer of the ‘breaking the line’ tactic is still hotly debated. Was his brilliant manoeuvre the premeditated plan of a tactical genius, or the quick-thinking opportunism of a seasoned admiral? What is certain is that the Battle of the Saints was the high-point of Rodney’s career – a crowning victory to round off a track-record littered with illustrious naval successes spanning 50 years of service.
In 1747, Rodney was put in command of the 60-gun ship HMS Eagle. In this capacity, he played a part in Admiral Edward Hawke’s victory over the French at the Battle of Cape Finisterre, receiving his first official recognition for gallantry. On his presentation to King George II by Lord Anson, the King remarked of Rodney that he had never before been aware of having so young a man as captain in his navy. To which Lord Anson replied:
Sire, young Rodney has already been six years a captain, and without reflecting on others, I wish, most heartily wish, your majesty had one hundred more such captains, to the terror of your majesty’s enemies.
The Seven Years’ War did not start well for Britain. Their dormant imperial rivalry with France had erupted once again in 1754. Two years later, full-scale war broke out. The British promptly lost several battles in North America and the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean.
When William Pitt the Elder and his new government tried to silence the British public’s clamouring for action by ordering the Raid of Rochefort in September 1757, Rodney hoped it would be the turning-point the British forces needed. In command of the 74-gun battleship HMS Dublin, he set out to the landing-point at the Fort of Iles d’Aix. In tow were Admiral Hawke’s 30 warships and 49 transports carrying ten battalions of Sir John Mordaunt’s land forces.
. Caught out by this surprise attack, the French were completely unprepared: Rochefort was Mordaunt’s for the taking. But Mordaunt’s confidence was wavering. Shallow waters at the landing-point meant that Hawke’s ships may have been unable to get close enough to provide adequate covering fire. Whatever the reason, the landing was cancelled, and an exasperated admiral withdrew his fleet.
Despite the débâcle, Rodney was promoted to rear-admiral in May 1759. The following month, he was put in charge of a small squadron and ordered to destroy a number of French flat-bottomed boats massing at the French port of Le Havre. For two days and nights, Rodney’s guns pounded the coast of Le Havre and destroyed a large proportion of the enemy’s boats and stores.
More success was to follow. Between 1760 and 1762, he took the islands of St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent; a period of British naval achievement that culminated in the smashing of the Spanish, who had joined the as French allies the same year, at Havana in March 1762.
Havana was Rodney’s final contribution to British victory in the Seven Years’ War, which was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The bravery and tactical skill he displayed during the war led 19th century historian John Knox Laughton to say of Rodney, ‘he never let slip an opportunity to bring opponents to action, or being himself in the thickest of the fight’.
The years of international peace that followed the treaty were anything but peaceful for Rodney. After having to wait (at great inconvenience to himself) for Admiral Townshend to die in order to receive the post, he was finally appointed Governor of Greenwich Hospital in 1765. His naval successes and growing status had made Rodney unscrupulous, vain, and greedy. He lived a life of gambling and excess, sparing no expense as he wined and dined in the elite circles of London ‘Society’. He was, as historian David Syrett puts it, ‘crashing through life while alternatively squandering money and attempting to grasp it’.
His responsibilities as Governor of Greenwich Hospital were not exactly taxing, and Rodney found himself able to visit the Houses of Parliament regularly. In 1768, he fought the General Election and was elected MP for Northampton. Politics was an expensive game and the campaign completed Rodney’s financial ruin. Another poisoned chalice was his later promotion to Rear Admiral of Great Britain. Although an honorary nominal rank, it brought with it the responsibility of the command of Jamaica – which meant relinquishing the cushy governorship of the naval hospital and all its pecuniary perks. Rodney was outraged.
Fleeing to Paris to escape impatient creditors and the very real possibility of being thrown in prison, Rodney had well and truly fallen from grace. His salvation came in the unlikely form of the French Maréchal Biron. After befriending Rodney in his time of need, the French marshal insisted that the down-and-out rear-admiral make use of his purse. Rodney, after hesitating in the hope that his country might still bail him out, eventually accepted, writing to his wife:
I have this day accepted the generous friendship of the Maréchal Biron, who has advanced one thousand Louis, in order that I may leave Paris without being reproached.
He returned to London, much to the relief of the Admiralty, which was finding it difficult to maintain the public’s confidence in its Navy. With so few naval commanders of any noteworthy talent to speak of, the public received Rodney back to the homeland as a returning champion.
The American War of Independence broke out in 1775, and by 1776 the American rebels had formally declared their independence and rejected any allegiance to the British. The new United States of America had received supplies, ammunition, and weapons from the French from the outset, and then, in 1778, Britain’s traditional colonial rival, still smarting from the outcome of the Seven Years’ War, seized the opportunity to openly join the war on the American side.
A new chapter in the on-going Anglo-French struggle for naval superiority was to be written; this time the advantage would be with the French. The hangover from the Seven Years’ War had cleared. With the allegiance of Spain and the Dutch Republic, naval dominance for France was this time a real possibility. The French embarked on a series of attacks, testing British military and naval forces to their limit. The stakes were high: nothing less than global dominance.
In 1779, Rodney was reappointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, all of which, bar Antigua and Barbados, had been conquered by the French and Spanish. Meantime, the admiral of the French fleet in the West Indies, the Comte de Grasse, was busy concocting what would later become known as the ‘De Grasse-Saavedra Convention’ with Spanish court representative, Francisco Saavedra de Sangroins. The plan was to use the allied military and naval forces in the West Indies to do three things: aid the Americans to defeat the British naval force at New York; capture some of the British Windward Islands; and capture Jamaica. It was during the third phase of this plan that Admiral Rodney was to play his greatest historical role.
Although de Grasse did not exactly ‘defeat’ the British at New York, he was able to intercept the British naval squadron, preventing it from aiding Cornwallis’ besieged British army at Chesapeake. As he waited for preparations to be made for the invasion of Jamaica, de Grasse, who by now had become something of a French national hero, passed the time by carrying out phase two of the operation, helping himself to a few of the British-owned islands in the Lesser Antilles. Everything was going according to plan for de Grasse and Saavedra.
By late March 1782, reinforcements were assembling at Fort Royal and the harbour of Cap Francois. With a total of 33 ships-of-the-line, de Grasse and his entire fleet set sail for Jamaica on 8 April. A rendezvous with the Spanish forces was scheduled at Saint Domingue, where 12 more ships-of-the-line and 15,000 invasion troops would be added to the fleet. For their troubles, and to ensure that there were no last minute changes of heart, the Spanish were promised the 26 chests of gold and silver that the French had on board. With such a large force against them, de Grasse assumed that the British would hand over Jamaica without a fight. He was wrong.
As soon as the British lookout frigates reported that the French were at sea, Rodney dispatched his 36 ships-of-the-line in pursuit. His chances of success did not look promising. His only available anchorage was at Gros Islet Bay, 50 miles south of Saint Domingue. It seemed impossible that Rodney would be able to cover the distance before de Grasse reached the Spanish. He would then face a monster fleet of 45 ships-of-line. Lady Luck intervened to help.
During the night of April 10, as De Grasse’s fleet sailed along the coast of Guadeluope, two of his ships collided. One was severely damaged. De Grasse’s pride would not let him abandon her to be captured, and so he bore round to try and usher her into the harbour at Pointe-á-Pitre. On hearing this from his scouts, Rodney knew this was his chance to force de Grasse to fight before his junction with the Spanish.
Just clear of Point Jacques, and with de Grasse now storming towards him between Marie Galante and the Saints, Rodney formed his battle line and cleared his flagship, Formidable, and her 98 broadside cannon for action.
We rejoin the helpless Zelé, which had unwittingly become the focal point for the battle about to ensue. It was a warm day in the West Indies; a gentle westerly wind was guiding the two fleets calmly towards each other in their lines. But as the two leading ships passed, the serene setting was shattered by the thundering of the first broadside cannon exchanges. The ships unleashed four volleys of cannon fire before the guns had passed their targets. A moment’s pause. The leading ships had seconds to recuperate as best they could before they crept up to face the second ship of the opposing fleet, then the third, then fourth, then fifth.
The cannon fire was relentless. The ships drifted past each other at an agonisingly slow pace; three or four knots at most. The light airs of the Dominican calms were proving problematic for the French: it was impossible to manoeuvre. Sensing this, Rodney gave the order for close action, and his line advanced to within 100 yards of the French. From here, the troops on board could take pot-shots with their muskets, and the British quarterdeck carronade could smash through deck and hull. The French fleet’s inferior short-range fire power meant that they were unable to return fire with equal force. The French losses were enormous.
It was two hours before the two lines of ships, each ten miles long, were parallel. By now, de Grasse had identified the problem that the wind – or rather, the lack of it – was causing his fleet. Twice he signalled for his line to veer and take the same tack as the British. Although acknowledged, these orders were impossible to carry out under heavy close-range fire, as French Rear-Admiral Charles Chevalier Destouches later noted: ‘The French fleet had freedom of movement no longer. A fleet cannot wear with an enemy’s fleet within musket-range to leeward.’
With the French caught in the cats-paws, the wind suddenly shifted to the south-east. Their bows were forced towards the British, throwing the order of the French line into disarray. As the Formidable drew up to face the fourth ship astern of the Ville de Paris, Rodney made the tactical decision that would win the British the Battle of the Saintes and revolutionise naval tactics.
The unpredictable gusts that were disorienting the French ships and creating gaps in their line offered Rodney the opportunity to turn the Formidable towards them and cut the enemy fleet in two. The decision was made in a split second, and through the French line Rodney sailed. Almost at the same time, HMS Duke, sailing six ships behind the Formidable, also cut through the line, taking the entire rear of the fleet with it. The French fleet was sliced into three sections.
The bows and sterns of the French ships were exposed to the short-range, heavily concentrated bombardment of enemy broadsides as the British ships passed through their line. The shot, passing down the length of the French ships, did maximum damage. The gun-decks became a smoking chaos of splintered wood and pulped flesh. The tropical seas around the ships reddened as bodies were tipped overboard. Return fire from the meagrely armed bows and sterns of the French ships was minimal.
Caught between the two intersecting lines, de Grasse himself was surrounded. He fought until the sun began to set, and only when there were just three men left standing on the upper deck of his flagship, by now battered beyond recognition, did he strike his colours.
With 3,000 French killed and a quarter of their fleet captured or sunk, the Battle of the Saints was over.
Rodney had won a decisive victory over a fleet of equal force. He had captured a French commander and his flagship. Jamaica was safe and the way paved for the reconquest of the islands previously lost. Despite all this, Rodney was criticised.
Rear Admiral Samuel Hood, who had brought up the rear of the fleet, believed that Rodney should have pursued the French further, and told Rodney so the following day. He condemned Rodney’s approach, stating:
Had I had the honour of commanding his Majesty’s noble fleet on the 12th, I may, without much imputation of vanity, say the flag of England should now have graced the sterns of UPWARDS of twenty sail of the enemy’s ships of the line.
Rodney’s captain, Sir Charles Douglas, was also quick to criticise, claiming, as so many others did subsequently, that the order to break the line had been his idea. Pamphlets were published insisting that the manoeuvre had been carried out in previous actions by various different commanders. And so the on-going debate over who really dreamed up the ‘breaking the line’ tactic began.
Rodney’s critical decision on 12 April 1782 may have been influenced by the men around him. It may have been some mix of accident and opportunism in the heat of battle. Or it may have been the execution of a carefully thought-out plan. We will probably never know. Perhaps it hardly matters. Perhaps it is an oversimplification to imagine that it has to be one thing or the other.
Changes in tactics are born of circumstance and previous experience. They develop over many years of combat and adapting to many combinations of new surroundings. Rodney’s decision to break the line was probably the product of a growing awareness among British naval officers of the potential advantages of the manoeuvre if it could be managed.
What can be said of Rodney is that he came to symbolise the re-establishment of British naval supremacy after half a century in which the French had often had the upper hand. That supremacy would achieve its ultimate consummation 23 years later, when the Royal Navy’s greatest admiral would win its greatest victory. At Trafalgar, the tactic pioneered by Rodney at the Saints would produce a triumph so complete that it destroyed more than half the opposing fleet and scuppered Napoleon’s plans for the invasion of England. Nelson was the master naval tactician. But Rodney was the great pioneer.