And the Battle of Quiberon Bay

In 1759, Britain faced the threat of French invasion, but two remarkable victories – the Battle of Lagos and later of Quiberon Bay – put paid to the plan.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759
The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759

When did the Royal Navy first achieve global naval supremacy? If we were to fix the moment to a single year, it would probably be 1759. This was the famous Annus Mirabilis, the ‘year of victories’, during the Seven Years War that effectively launched Britain on its ascent to world empire.

On 1 August 1759, Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, at the head of an allied army that included a large British contingent, defeated a larger French army at the Battle of Minden, enabling him to clear most of the Rhineland of enemy troops.

On 13 September 1759, General Wolfe stormed the Heights of Abraham and delivered ‘the perfect volley’ that shredded the French ranks and gave the British control of Quebec and ultimately Canada. Admiral Charles Saunders’ squadron played a decisive role in this operation, transporting Wolfe’s infantry and giving fire support from the St Lawrence River to the operations on land. Quebec was as much a Navy as an Army triumph.

As so often in Britain’s long military history, invasion threatened. Successive great Continental powers have aspired to bring their much larger armies to bear by transporting them across the Channel, and when they have done so the Royal Navy has been the basis of the island’s defence.

Two remarkable Royal Navy victories – the Battle of Lagos (18-19 August) in the Mediterranean and the Battle of Quiberon Bay (20 November) on the Atlantic coast – put paid to the French invasion plan. In each case, a French fleet was part destroyed, part scattered, and thereby rendered incapable of providing the escort necessary to transport the waiting French army of invasion to its destination.

The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759
Admiral Sir Edward Hawke

Both battles took the form of chases, when a temporary suspension of blockade afforded the French ships an opportunity to break away and make rendezvous prior to the attempted invasion. Both were victories of seamanship and gunnery that owed little to tactical finesse. British captains were expected to hurl themselves at their enemies, to get at the opposing vessels any way they could, and to destroy them with close-range fire.

It was Admiral Sir Edward Hawke who commanded the Atlantic blockading fleet and delivered victory in the Battle of Quiberon Bay. In doing so, he saved his country from invasion and laid the foundations of British naval supremacy.

In Treasure Island, we are told that the legendary Long John Silver lost his leg ‘in his country’s service, under the immortal Hawke’. The famous pirate, of course, was a purely fictional creation. Yet the admiral with whom he claimed to have sailed was very real.

The son of a barrister, Edward Hawke came from a professional family without prior links to the sea. Apart from an uncle in minor government service, he did not possess the advantages of influential patronage. A lack of useful political connections held him back in his early career. It also explains why, even after his great victory, he had to wait another decade and a half to be raised to the peerage.

Hawke joined the navy at the age of 15 – slightly older than was usual for officers at the time. During the 1720s his career progressed quite slowly. Then two events transformed his professional prospects.

The French man-o’-war Thésée attempting to manoeuvre during the battle.
The French man-o’-war Thésée attempting to manoeuvre during the battle.

One was the enormous loss of life due to disease on the Jamaica station while he was posted there. This led to his promotion at the age of 28 to master and commander of a small warship, the Wolf.

The second was the outbreak of conflict with Spain in 1739, which at once heightened Britain’s need to protect its vital West Indies trade. Conflict with Spain, and later with France, would shape Hawke’s career over the next two decades.

Unlike Horatio Nelson, with whom his achievements bear comparison, Hawke is little remembered today. So what kind of man was he, and what was his contribution to the history of the Royal Navy?


This is an extract from a 15-paged special on Admiral Hawke and his victory at Quiberon Bay, published in the August/September issue of Military History Matters.

In our special this time – the first of a short series looking at key figures in the rise of the Royal Navy – Graham Goodlad provides an overview of Hawke’s career, and Neil Faulkner offers a detailed analysis of his greatest victory, the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

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