Battle of Minorca (1756)

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For other battles for control of Minorca, see Invasion of Minorca.
Battle of Minorca
Part of the Seven Years' War
Prise Port Mahon Minorque 20 mai 1756.jpg
Attack and capture of Fort St. Philip on the island of Menorca, 29 June 1756, after the naval battle.
Date 20 May 1756
Location Mediterranean Sea, near Minorca, present-day Spain
Result French strategic victory[1][2]
Belligerents
 France  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of France Marquis de la Galissonnière Kingdom of Great Britain John Byng
Strength
12 ships of the line
5 frigates
12 ships of the line
7 frigates
Casualties and losses
38 killed
184 wounded
Half the fleet damaged
45 killed
162 wounded

The Battle of Minorca (20 May 1756) was a naval battle between French and British fleets. It was the opening sea battle of the Seven Years' War in the European theatre. Shortly after the war began British and French squadrons met off the Mediterranean island of Minorca. The French won the battle. The subsequent decision by the British to withdraw to Gibraltar handed France a strategic victory and led directly to the Fall of Minorca.

The British failure to save Minorca led to the controversial court-martial and execution of the British commander, Admiral John Byng, for "failure to do his utmost" to relieve the siege of the British garrison on Minorca.

Background[edit]

The departure of the French squadron on 10 April 1756 for the attack against Port Mahon. (Nicolas Ozanne, (1728 - 1811)

The French had been menacing the British-held garrison on Minorca, which had come under British control during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1708. Great Britain and France had commenced hostilities in the New World colonies earlier in 1754 (the French and Indian War), and at this point the conflict was not going well for Great Britain. The government was anxious to protect her presence closer to home, and was concerned that the French might even be planning to invade Great Britain themselves (as France had attempted in previous wars by supporting the Stuart claimants to the throne during the Jacobite Wars).

The long-expected French move on Minorca finally caused the British government to act, albeit too belatedly, and a squadron of 10 ships of the line was dispatched from Gibraltar to its defence, under the command of John Byng (then a Vice-Admiral, but quickly promoted to Admiral for the purpose). Despite having considerable intelligence of the strength of the French fleet at Toulon that was designated for the invasion of Minorca, the ships allocated to Byng were all in a poor state of repair and undermanned.

Prelude[edit]

When Byng and his fleet, reinforced by ships of the Minorca squadron that had escaped the island, arrived off Minorca on May 19, they found the island already overrun by French troops, with only the garrison of Fort St. Philip (Port Mahon) holding out. Byng's orders were to relieve the garrison, but a French squadron of 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates intervened as the afternoon was wearing on. The two fleets positioned themselves, and battle was drawn up on the morning of the following day.

Battle[edit]

English and French fleets

Facing 12 French ships of the line, Byng formed his 12 largest ships into a single line of battle and approached the head of the French line on a parallel course while maintaining the weather gage. He then ordered his ships to go about and come alongside their opposite numbers in the French fleet. However, the poor signalling capability of the times caused confusion and delay in closing. The British van took a considerable pounding from their more heavily armed French adversaries, while the rear of the line, including Byng's flagship, failed to come within effective cannon range. During the battle Byng displayed considerable caution and an over-reliance on standard fighting procedures, and several of his ships were seriously damaged, while no ships were lost by the French. Following a Council of War, at which all the senior officers present concurred, it was agreed the fleet stood no chance of further damaging the French ships or of relieving the garrison. Byng therefore gave orders to return to Gibraltar.

Aftermath[edit]

The English Lion dismembered after the French conquer the island of Minorca.
The Shooting of Admiral Byng, by unknown artist.

The battle could hardly be considered anything other than a French victory in the light of Byng failing to press on to relieve the garrison or pursue the French fleet which inaction resulted in severe criticism. The Admiralty, perhaps concerned to divert attention from its own lack of preparation for the disastrous venture, charged Byng for breaching the Articles of War by failing to do all he could to fulfill his orders and support the garrison. Byng was court-martialled, found guilty and sentenced to death. Byng was executed on 14 March 1757 aboard HMS Monarch in Portsmouth harbour.

Byng's execution is referred to in Voltaire's novel Candide with the line Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres – "In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others."[3]

Despite William Pitt's eagerness to regain the island, a British expedition was not sent to recapture it for the remainder of the war. It was eventually returned to Britain following the Treaty of Paris, in exchange for the French West Indies and Belle-Île.

Order of battle[edit]

In order of their place in the line of battle:

British fleet[edit]

British fleet
Ship Rate Guns Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
Defiance Third rate 60 Captain Thomas Andrews 14 45 59
Portland Fourth rate 50 Captain Patrick Baird 6 20 26
Lancaster Third rate 64 Captain Hon. George Edgcumbe 1 14 15
Buckingham Third rate 68 Rear-Admiral Temple West
Captain Michael Everitt
3 7 10
Captain Third rate 64 Captain Charles Catford 6 30 36
Intrepid Third rate 64 Captain James Young 9 39 48
Revenge Third rate 64 Captain Frederick Cornwall 0 0 0
Princess Louisa Third rate 60 Captain Hon. Thomas Noel 3 13 16
Trident Third rate 64 Captain Philip Durell 0 0 0
Ramillies Second rate 90 Admiral Hon. John Byng
Captain Arthur Gardiner
0 0 0
Culloden Third rate 74 Captain Henry Ward 0 0 0
Kingston Third rate 60 Captain William Parry 0 0 0
Deptford Fourth rate 50 Captain John Amherst 0 0 0
Casualty summary 42 168 210

Attached frigates[edit]

Ship Guns Captain Rate
Chesterfield 44 Captain William Lloyd Fifth-rate frigate
Experiment 24 Captain James Gilchrist Sixth-rate frigate
Dolphin 24 Commander Benjamin Marlow Sixth-rate frigate
Phoenix 24 Captain Hon. Augustus Hervey Sixth-rate frigate
Fortune 14 Commander Jervis Maplesden Unrated brig-sloop

French fleet[edit]

French fleet
Ship Rate Guns Commander Casualties Notes
Killed Wounded Total
Orphée 64 Captain Raimondis 10 9 19
Hippopotame 50 Captain Rochemaure 2 10 12
Redoutable 74 Chef d'Escadre Glandeves 12 39 51
Sage 64 Captain Duruen 0 8 8
Guerrier 74 Captain La Brosse 0 43 43
Fier 50 Captain d'Herville 0 4 4
Foudroyant 80 Admiral Marquis de la Galissonnière 2 10 12
Téméraire 74 Captain Beaumont 0 15 15
Content 64 Captain Sabran 5 19 24
Lion 64 Captain St. Agnan 2 7 9
Couronne 74 Chef d'Escadre La Clue 0 3 3
Triton 64 Captain Mercier 5 14 19
Casualty summary 38 181 219

Attached frigates[edit]

Ship Guns Captain
Junon 46 Captain Beausfier
Rose 30 Captain Costebelle
Gracieuse 30 Captain Marquizan
Topaze 26 Captain Carne
Nymphe 26 Captain Callian

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Dull, pp. 52–54.
  2. ^ Lambert, p. 143.
  3. ^ Hamley, p. 177.

Bibliography[edit]

  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. Faber and Faber, 2000.
  • Brown, Peter Douglas. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham: The Great Commoner. George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
  • Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and the Seven Years' War. University of Nebraska, 2005.
  • Hamley, Sir Edward Bruce (1877). Voltaire. Edinburgh; London: Wm. Blackwood & Sons. Retrieved 1 October 2011. 
  • Lambert, Andrew. Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great. Faber and Faber, 2009.

Coordinates: 39°53′24″N 4°21′00″E / 39.8900°N 4.3500°E / 39.8900; 4.3500