In 1808, the global war between France and Britain was well into its second decade, but it seemed far from resolution, largely owing to the asymmetry of the two sides’ military capabilities. France was the supreme land power of the age, while Britain had been the dominant maritime force since the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. This dilemma was well understood at the time—Napoleon Bonaparte himself supposedly referred to the fight as one between a whale and an elephant. But the conflict was about to enter a new—and, for Britain, more promising—phase. Napoleon’s choice of operations on land—in particular, his decision to overthrow the government of his Spanish ally—finally permitted the Royal Navy to play a decisive role in the overall war.
Regime Change, Regency Style
By 1808, Napoleon had grown increasingly exasperated with the performance of his principal ally, Spain. With characteristic determination, he decided to depose the Spanish government by force and replace it with one headed by his older brother, Joseph. In his proclamation justifying this act of aggression, Napoleon wrote: “Spaniards! . . . Your monarchy is old. My mission is to pour into its veins the blood of youth. I will ameliorate all your institutions and make you enjoy . . . the blessings of reform, without its collisions, its disorders, its convulsions.”1
But in deciding to overthrow Spain’s government on the heels of his late-1807 invasion of Portugal, Napoleon made a catastrophic error of judgment matched only by his decision, four years later, to invade Russia. With this act, the French emperor converted a willing Spanish ally into an implacable enemy and set off the six-year conflict that became known as the Peninsular War.
This was regime change, Regency style, and with it came many problems. Sweeping away Spain’s corrupt government and its regular armed forces was relatively easy. Reconciling the fiercely independent Spanish and Portuguese peoples to foreign occupation would prove to be a tougher challenge altogether. Bonaparte’s intervention triggered a bitter war of resistance waged by Spanish guerrillas (the use of this term for irregular troops dates from the period). The number of French and allied troops that had to be deployed on the Iberian Peninsula was never less than a quarter of a million and would peak at 325,000 in 1810.2 Napoleon himself would subsequently refer to the Peninsular War as his “Spanish ulcer.”3
The Royal Navy found a new role in the war with France in just the first few weeks of peninsular fighting. The French had opened a front where British sea power could at last play a determinative role.
Except for the border at the Pyrenees, the Iberian Peninsula is surrounded by water, with a coastline of more than 1,500 miles. Interior roads in Spain and Portugal at the time were, in the words of historian Christopher Hall, “without exception, execrable,” forcing the invaders to rely on shipping and the better-maintained coast roads for troop movements and logistics.4 But anything that brought the French Army to the coast made it vulnerable to naval attack.
Napoleon, surprised by the furious popular reaction to his coup d’état, was forced to send powerful columns of troops over the border. One, under the command of General Pierre Hugues Victoire Merle, was ordered to march on the strategically important port of Santander, a northern city on the Bay of Biscay. As the distance between France and Santander by road was under 150 miles, the French commander was confident of quickly securing his objective.
But two small British warships, the 22-gun Cossack and the 18-gun Comet, also had been sent to Santander after the area revolted against the new French regime. The ships had been ordered to collect any British civilians in the town. As the senior British officer, Captain George Digby, approached the coast, he learned of General Merle’s advancing force and made haste to reach the port first. The two ships arrived at Santander on 22 June 1808, while the French Army was still tramping along a difficult mountain road in the heat of a Spanish summer. The town was in the hands of Spanish rebels, who had been about to abandon it and flee into the mountains because the French troops had reached a mountain pass a few miles away.
One thing was clear to Digby: Santander’s protective forts were at serious risk of being captured intact by the French, and it was his duty to prevent this if he could. Digby had very limited resources to hand—a mere 300 men (of whom about 60 were marines) from the two ships combined. Nevertheless, he drew up plans for a landing using his ships’ boats.
The Comet’s captain, Cuthbert Daly, led the expedition. At the Fort of Salvador de Ano, he disabled all the guns and destroyed the fort’s military stores. He then blew up the main powder magazine, destroying much of the structure—but also alerting the French to what was going on. Daly then repeated the process at nearby Fort Sedra, this time with the advancing enemy closing in. Daly’s sailors and marines used a shorter fuze to prevent the arriving French from putting it out.
It was a close-run affair. According to Digby’s report to the Admiralty, “Captain Daly and Lieutenant Read of the Marines are much scorched . . . in setting Fire to the Train, but am happy to find his Eyes are safe, and he is doing well.” Digby noted with satisfaction that “a considerable Body of French Dragoons [i.e., cavalry] appeared . . . near the Smoking Ruins of the Magazine,” as the boats pushed off for the ships.5 The French may have captured Santander, but it would be some time before it would be of much value to them.
For Those in Peril from the Sea
That two small ships could be responsible for such destruction, under the noses of the French Army, was not lost on the British, and direct attacks and raids along the coastline became important parts of the unfolding naval campaign.
The Royal Navy stationed a powerful frigate squadron at Ferol, in Galicia, to patrol the northern Spanish coast as far as the French border. A much larger fleet operated out of Lisbon, Portugal, and was responsible for the Atlantic coast down to Gibraltar. The size of this force varied, depending on the perceived threat to Portugal, but it was never less than 2 ships-of-the-line, 4 frigates, and 14 sloops and brigs. Spain’s east coast was the responsibility of the British Mediterranean fleet, a very large force. In 1810, for example, it comprised 30 ships-of-the-line, 22 frigates, and almost 30 sloops and brigs. At least a third of these vessels were allocated to Spanish waters.
Such powerful naval forces patrolling the coast forced the French to divert resources to protect the coastline. In 1810, for example, more than 20,000 imperial troops were engaged in defending the northern coast of Spain, patrolling beaches, manning coastal batteries, and garrisoning ports.6 Although these activities drained considerable manpower, they amounted to only a thinly stretched screen that could easily be penetrated by a warship arriving from over the horizon and determined to intercept the vital flow of French coastal traffic.
In the single month of March 1809, Captain Charles Adams of the 38-gun frigate Resistance either captured or burned one schooner, three chasse loupes, five chasse maree, and a brig, all bringing French supplies to northern Spain.7 The following year, a midshipman from another frigate, Frederick Marryat (later an author of Napoleonic War fiction), recorded the details of a seven-month cruise spent off the coast of Spain. In that time, his ship attacked nine shore batteries, burned down six signal posts, helped guerrillas capture the Castle of Mongat in a combined assault, destroyed several bridges, and, on one occasion, directly bombarded French troops marching along the coast road within range of the ship.8 Spain’s Mediterranean coast was especially vulnerable to the threat of naval assault. There, large French-held population centers such as Barcelona and Valencia depended almost entirely on supply from the sea, while the strength of the British Mediterranean Fleet was a constant threat.
This could result in substantial battles, such as in October 1809, when French Rear Admiral Francois Baudin left Toulon with three ships-of-the-line, several smaller warships, and a convoy of 16 vessels carrying troops and supplies bound for Barcelona. They were spotted by the Pomone, a Royal Navy frigate, which hastened to warn Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, in command of the blockading fleet. He dispatched a squadron of his 12 fastest ships under Rear Admiral George Martin to intercept Baudin.
Faced with this overwhelming force, the French scattered, and a running battle ensued over several days along the Catalan coast. Most of the convoy and its escorts were either captured or destroyed. The final act came with an attack on the seven surviving store ships and four small warships, which had taken refuge in Rosas Bay under the guns of a fortress and several coastal batteries, but to no avail. A force of two British ships-of-the-line, three frigates, and three sloops-of-war arrived just before sunset on 31 October. They were under the command of Captain Benjamin Hallowell, the American-born member of Horatio Nelson’s “Band of Brothers,” who sent in every ship’s boat in his squadron the moment it was dark. Under heavy fire from the shore and fierce resistance from the French ships, British casualties were high, with almost 80 killed or wounded, including 6 lieutenants. But all the French ships were either brought out or burned at their moorings.9
Relentless British attacks forced the French to invest in elaborate defenses. Anchorages were established between 9 and 20 miles apart, each guarded by cannon batteries. Between them, telegraph posts on hills observed and reported on British warships. Only when the coast was literally clear would a convoy dash to the next place of shelter. If there was any danger of attack or it was dark or foggy, the ships would stay put. This could impose severe delays on vital supplies. Vice Admiral Collingwood, who commanded in the Mediterranean for much of this period, wrote: “Their Commerce is retarded, and Convoys sometimes stopped from one to three weeks, but an opportunity will at last open to them, and they wait it patiently.”10
While the Royal Navy was working hard to deny the French the use of the sea, the British were able to exploit it for the benefit of their own side. A modest force of 9,000 troops under the Duke of Wellington landed in Portugal in 1808. The force grew over the succeeding years, as the government in London reinforced the successes the “Iron Duke” was achieving in the field with an army of more than 100,000 men by 1814. All these troops had to be supplied by sea. In addition, Britain took responsibility for retraining, equipping, and supplying the Portuguese Army, which became a valuable part of Wellington’s forces, as well as arming and feeding many Spanish guerrillas. The quantities of food and matériel being brought into the Iberian Peninsula were staggering.
In 1809 alone, 34 separate convoys—the largest of which comprised 97 merchant vessels—were sent to Iberian ports. By 1811, the number of convoys had increased threefold and regularly contained more than a hundred ships. Most came from Britain, although some were shipments of grain direct from North America. Between 1808 and 1811, Britain supplied 300,000 muskets, 100,000 pistols, 60 million rounds of ammunition, and more than 300 artillery pieces to aid the Spanish rebellion. Food, money, uniforms, ammunition, horses, reinforcements, and weapons poured into the peninsula, almost always with minimal delay and little interference from the French.11
Command of the sea conveyed other benefits to Wellington. At no stage did his Anglo-Portuguese army ever approach parity of numbers with the French. Yet the British were able to campaign freely in Spain, winning a series of victories. This strategic license came from the knowledge that they always had a maritime insurance policy. Should a British force find itself heavily outnumbered, it could retreat to the coast, where the Royal Navy would be waiting. The best-known example came in January 1809, when 26,000 British troops were forced to retreat to the port of Corunna, closely pursued by a much larger French army under Marshal Jean Soult. After inflicting a sharp defeat on the French advanced guard, the army was safely evacuated by sea, before the rest of Soult’s forces could arrive.
The Royal Navy also provided direct support to the Spanish rebels, particularly when they were defending coastal strongholds. Supplies and reinforcements were brought in and casualties and civilians evacuated. Royal Navy ships also provided fire support and troop reinforcements. This support could be so effective that some fortified ports, such as Cadiz, were never captured, despite sieges that lasted as long as years. With other cities, their fall was delayed significantly by naval intervention.
This was the case with the defense of Rosas, a fortress that dominated the coast road between France and Barcelona. In July 1808, taking this fort was a crucial objective for the French, who expected it to fall quickly, because of its dilapidated condition and the small number of defenders. But thanks to considerable British naval support, Rosas stubbornly resisted assaults for five months. Throughout the siege, ships ferried in reinforcements and supplies and bombarded French entrenchments, while parties of marines and sailors stiffened Spanish resistance by directly manning key strongpoints. One such party was led by the dashing Captain Thomas Lord Cochrane.
At the time, Cochrane commanded the heavy 38-gun frigate Imperieuse. The Castell de la Trinitat was a fortification isolated from the main citadel of Rosas, on a cliff with only the sea behind it. This made it difficult to supply by land, and it offered no practical means of retreat, so the Spanish defenders were considering abandoning it. But Cochrane had other ideas. He pointed out that, far from being a disadvantage, its proximity to the sea played to the defender’s strengths. His ship could provide close gun support, while men familiar with climbing masts and rigging had no objection to scaling a cliff. The clinching argument was his offer to personally lead the shore party of marines and seamen.
The men from the frigate defended La Trinitat for several weeks with considerable ingenuity. Cochrane and his sailors seemed to have delighted in using their nautical skills to devise ever more elaborate boobytraps and barriers, including ships’ cables covered in fishhooks and a sloping wooden platform covered in fatty slush that no attacker could keep his footing on. One midshipman recalled: “We all pigged in together, dirty straw and fleas for our beds.”12
The fort’s defense did not come without cost, however. Cochrane himself was badly wounded when a French cannonball hit a wall near him and he was “struck by a stone splinter in the face; the splinter flattening my nose and then penetrating my mouth. By the skill of our excellent doctor, Mr. Guthrie, my nose was after a time rendered serviceable.”13 Only after the rest of the fortress had fallen did Cochrane withdraw. “At 11 am we made signal for the boats—the Imperieuse attending them close in shore . . . whilst our men went down the rope ladders.”14 The evacuation was a success. Cochrane and his gunner were the last to leave, blowing up the fort’s magazine as they left.
Some aspects of command of the sea are easier to assess than others. Listing ships captured, convoys escorted, and arms delivered is straightforward. Harder to quantify are the psychological effects. Royal Navy ships were regularly in contact with Spanish rebels, not only helping them directly, but also bringing news of triumphs and battles won elsewhere in the peninsula. When news of Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812 reached the Mediterranean, Sir Edward Codrington, who commanded the naval squadron operating on the east coast of Spain, ordered his ships to spread the word far and wide. By itself, the spectacle of Royal Navy warships constantly sailing close to the coast year after year must have depressed French morale as much as it boosted that of the Spanish.
When war with the United States broke out in 1812, the Royal Navy scaled back its extensive operations in Spanish waters, as large numbers of warships crossed the Atlantic to blockade the U.S. coast. But the damage to Napoleon had been done. Wellington’s initial little army had swelled to a powerful and well-established force, and Spanish rebels now controlled much of the country.
Meanwhile, France’s disastrous invasion of Russia that same year meant that, at last, the British had a reliable continental ally as committed to the overthrow of Napoleon as they were. Over the following two years, the French were remorselessly expelled from Spain. In late 1813, Wellington’s army was the first allied force to invade France, a fact that only the Royal Navy’s command of the sea had made possible. As Wellington himself observed, “If anyone wishes to know the history of this war, I will tell them that it is our maritime superiority [which] gives me the power of maintaining my army while the enemy are unable to do so.”15
1. Napoleon Bonaparte, “Proclamation to the Spaniards on the Abdication of Charles IV, June 2, 1808,” www.napoleon-series.org/research/napoleon/speeches/c_speeches9.html.
2. David Gates, The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War (London: Da Capo Press, 2001), 34.
3. J. H. Rose, The Life of Napoleon I, vol. II (George Bell and Son, 1903), 173.
4. Christopher D. Hall, “The Royal Navy and the Peninsular War,” The Mariner’s Mirror 79, no. 4 (November 1993).
5. From Captain Digby’s report, reproduced in The London Gazette, 9 July 1808, 964–65.
6. Hall, “The Royal Navy and the Peninsular War.”
7. Royal Public Records Office, Adm. 1/141.
8. F. Marryat, Life and Letters of Captain Marryat, vol. I (TheClassics.us, 2013), 46–51.
9. W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy—A History from Earliest Times to 1900, vol. 5 (London: Chatham, 1996), 278–81
10. Hall, “The Royal Navy and the Peninsular War.”
11. J. M. Sherwig, Guineas and Gunpowder: British Foreign Aid in the Wars with France, 1793–1815 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 237.
12. Marryat, Life and Letters of Captain Marryat, 46.
13. Admiral Lord Cochrane, The Autobiography of a Seaman, vol. I (London: Lyons Press, 2000), 305–6.
14. Cochrane, The Autobiography of a Seaman, 314–15.
15. Hall, “The Royal Navy and the Peninsular War.”