‘Breaking the line’

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How the British Royal Navy achieved global supremacy

The Battle of the Saintes, 1782. Detail from a painting by Thomas Mitchell. Admiral George Rodney’s tactic of ‘breaking the line’ may have been accidental, but it was hailed at the time as a stroke of genius.
The Battle of the Saintes, 1782. Detail from a painting by Thomas Mitchell. Admiral George Rodney’s tactic of ‘breaking the line’ may have been accidental, but it was hailed at the time as a stroke of genius.

In the half century between the Battle of Quiberon Bay (1759) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Britain’s Royal Navy transformed naval tactics and established global maritime supremacy.

Developments in the technology of sail power and naval gunnery had combined to make decisive battle at sea increasingly elusive. Opposing fleets tended to sail on parallel courses and engage in long-range cannonades, making it difficult to inflict crippling damage, and relatively easy to break off the action at any time.

But the Navy also faced many other challenges. The protection of a worldwide network of trade and empire imposed continuous demands on its resources. From 1775 to 1783, the Navy was engaged in an ultimately losing battle to suppress Britain’s North American colonies in their struggle for independence.

The 74-gun French ship César explodes at the Battle of the Saintes.
The 74-gun French ship César explodes at the Battle of the Saintes.

Nor could national security be taken for granted, in view of Britain’s lack of Continental allies and the ever-present possibility of a hostile Franco-Spanish alliance. Given the small size of the Army, only a well maintained and drilled fleet could fend off the ultimate threat of invasion and occupation.

Yet Britain was fast-rising maritime and colonial power. With a burgeoning commercial economy and exponentially expanding demand for both imports and markets, it was already well-advanced in building a world empire.

The relatively open society of 18th-century Britain – more open, at any rate, than the tradition-bound absolute monarchies of the European continent – encouraged a spirit of enterprise and facilitated the advancement of talented men of modest means. This was notably so in the Royal Navy.

Two generations of British naval officers, many of them self-made men recruited from the middle class, grappled with the problem presented by a tactical doctrine that seemed to preclude clear-cut victory.

Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, the victor at Quiberon Bay, was one of these. We reported on his career and his culminating triumph in a previous issue – a victory marked by exceptional determination and aggression in bringing an enemy fleet to action despite a raging storm. This was part of the British revolution in tactics: a killer instinct.

The will to close with the enemy was based on superior British seamanship and gunnery – that is, on the knowledge that if only the enemy could be run down and brought to battle, superiority of ships, men, and training would do the rest.

Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792).
Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792).

There was the rub: how to achieve the close quarters action where British advantage could have decisive effect. The solution to this problem was to overturn the hallowed practice of sailing in parallel lines and instead attempt to break the enemy line – a tactic designed to bring the British ships to point-blank range.

In the second of our two specials in this mini-series, Graham Goodlad charts the careers of two leading British admirals, George Rodney and Richard Howe.

Neither man, it has to be said, was a paragon of virtue. Rodney was difficult to work with, greedy, and addicted to gambling. He spent four years in France, during a short period of peace with the traditional enemy, to escape his creditors.

Howe was aloof with his officers, and so inarticulate that his orders were not always readily understood. Late in his career he spent five years as First Lord of the Admiralty, where poor relationships with his colleagues in government limited his effectiveness as the country’s chief naval administrator.

Admiral Richard
‘Black Dick’ Howe (1726-1799).
Admiral Richard ‘Black Dick’ Howe (1726-1799).

Both admirals, however, closed their careers by ‘breaking the line’ and outstanding successes against French forces – Rodney in 1782 at the Battle of the Saintes, in the West Indies; Howe 12 years later in the ‘Glorious First of June’. These victories redeemed their other shortcomings and earned them a place among the foremost naval commanders of their time. They were both personally brave, adept tacticians, and, despite their flaws, effective leaders. With their victories, both men made a major contribution to the development of the Navy.

Neil Faulkner then analyses British naval tactics – their strengths and limitations – at the latter battle, arguing that Howe’s intention was sound, but that he and other British admirals had not yet devised an ideal method of execution. This, of course, would be the achievement of Horatio Nelson, one of the greatest naval commanders in world history. He will be the subject of the last in our mini-series.

This is an extract from a 14-paged special on the careers of Rodney, Howe and the rise of British seapower, from the latest issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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