Bruix' expedition of 1799
Bruix' expedition of 1799, often called Croisière de Bruix in French sources, was a French naval operation of the French Revolutionary Wars, carried out in May 1799 by Vice-admiral Bruix. It aimed at sending the naval squadron of Brest to the Mediterranean, gathering Spanish ships on the way, and rescuing Malta and Corfu, and supporting the French armies in Italy. The actual objectives of the expedition remain unclear.
After the crushing defeat of the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, what remained of the French squadron of the Mediterranean, based in Toulon, was in disarray, and a French army was stranded in Egypt.
The squadron of Brest was in a passable state, but is was realised that the lack of experience of the crews and the state of the ships would not allow a victory over the British without anything but overwhelming numerical superiority. With the British squadrons dispersed after the Battle of the Nile, it was decided the send the Brest squadron to the Mediterranean.
In April 1799, the cutter Rebecca was sent to Ireland with false letters and the mission of letting her intenetionally captured; on 27 April, she gave herself up to the hired armed cutter Black Joke. This disinformation lured Admiral Bridport to Ireland.
Preparation of the expedition was shrouded in secrecy and deception. Rumours that a new expedition to Ireland was being planned were started, and a ship was sent to Ireland, carrying letters confirming these, with orders to let herself be captured. The country was still unsettled following the United Irishmen's Rebellion the previous year.
Bruix slipped out Brest with 25 ships of the line under cover of fog and sailed south. Not knowing which way he had gone, the British blockading fleet, which had been ordered to prioritise the defence of Ireland against any French attempt to stoke renewed unrest there, headed north-westwards to oppose a move in that direction. As a result, Bruix gained a valuable headstart and got as far as Cadiz before meeting any British ships. There he found Lord Keith with 15 ships of the line, blockading a Spanish fleet of 28 ships of the line inside the port. Despite the opportunity to overwhelm Keith's heavily outnumbered fleet Bruix opted to avoid action and continue into the Mediterranean. He was reinforced by a Spanish squadron but the Spanish ships were in such a state of disrepair that soon after the combined fleet departed into the Mediterranean, they had to return to harbour.
At the time of Bruix's arrival British and allied forces in the western Mediterranean were dispersed, with small British squadrons off Malta, Minorca and Naples, a Russian fleet at Corfu and small Portuguese and Sicilian squadrons also in the area. Again Bruix was in a position to inflict devastating damage by destroying these scattered groups piecemeal but again nothing came of this. Following damage caused by a collision he made a detour to Toulon for repairs. There he received new orders to escort supply shipments to the French army in Italy under Andre Massena, which had retreated to Genoa and was under siege. Bruix sailed into the Gulf of Genoa but was driven back by adverse winds.
Meanwhile Keith had followed the French fleet into the Mediterranean and gathered the British squadrons together at Minorca in preparation for battle. Preferring once again to avoid a confrontation, Bruix decided to return to Brest. He eluded the British forces searching for him and returned to Cadiz, where Spanish ships were gathered and purchased, expanding the fleet to a total of 43 sail. From there, the fleet sailed to Brest. In its increased strength Bruix's force significantly outnumbered the British fleet in the Channel, but rather than take advantage of this he chose to put into Brest and remain there. A week later the arrival of Keith, who had pursued him back from the Mediterranean, negated this advantage of numbers.
The objective of the sortie remain unclear to the day. There has been speculations about an attempt to support or evacuate the Army of Egypt, but the fleet lacked the material for the former aim, and the coordination with Paris for the later.
Order of battle
27 ships of the line and several frigates. A number of Spanish ships were purchased and brought into French Navy service.
|Frigates and corvettes|
|Bravoure||Frigate||40||Captain Mahé de la Bourdonnais||-||-||-|
|Créole||Frigate||40||Captain Guy-Jean-François Gérard de la Coudraye||-||-||-|
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