Battle of Fort Royal
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The Battle of Fort Royal was a naval battle fought off Fort Royal, Martinique in the West Indies during the Anglo-French War on 29 April 1781, between fleets of the British Royal Navy and the French Navy. After an engagement lasting four hours, the British squadron under Sir Samuel Hood broke off and retreated. Admiral Comte de Grasse offered a desultory chase before seeing the French convoys safe to port.
In March 1781, a large French fleet under the command of Comte de Grasse left the port of Brest. Most of this fleet was headed for the West Indies. Of the 26 ships of the line, one was sent to North America, and five, under the command of the Bailli de Suffren, were destined for India. The remaining twenty arrived off to Martinique on April 28. Before sailing to the lee (western) side of the island, de Grasse anchored the fleet and sent someone ashore for news. He learned that a British fleet of 17 ships of the line under Samuel Hood was blockading Fort Royal, preventing the four French ships anchored there from leaving.
Hood was under orders from the fleet's station commander, Admiral George Brydges Rodney, to maintain the blockade of the port on the lee side, despite his protests that this would put him at a disadvantage should any other fleet arrive. Though disadvantaged by his position and his inferior firepower, the fact that all of his ships had copper bottoms, which required little maintenance compared to the alternative, and that he was not burdened with the responsibility of escorting a convoy both allowed him to focus his efforts on maintaining the blockade.
De Grasse ordered his fleet to prepare for action on the morning of April 29, and sailed for Fort Royal with the convoy ships hugging the coast and the armed ships in battle line. Hood's fleet was spotted bearing toward them around 8:00 AM, but de Grasse held the advantageous weather gauge. At about 9:20 AM, Hood was joined by the Prince William, a 64-gun ship that had been at St. Lucia. The two fleets continued to push for advantageous positions, however Hood's leeward position meant he was unable to prevent de Grasse from bringing the convoy to the harbor, and de Grasse's fleet and the four blockaded ships soon met. Around 11 AM, de Grasse's van began firing at long range, with no effect. By 12:30 PM the two fleets were aligned, but de Grasse refused to take advantage of the weather gauge to close with Hood, despite Hood's efforts to bring the French to him. The fleets then exchanged cannonades and broadsides for the next hour; though at long range, the damage incurred was modest. The four British ships on the southern end of the line suffered the most damage due to being targeted and outnumbered by eight French ships. Hood finally drew away toward St. Lucia.
Hood dispatched the Russell, which had been holed below the waterline to St. Eustatius for repairs, and to bring news of the action to Admiral Rodney. Hood spent the next day in fruitless attempts to gain the windward and eventually made sail to the north. He met Rodney on May 11 between St. Kitts and Antigua, the latter having left St. Eustatius on May 5. Reports of French casualties vary from as few as 74 killed and wounded to more than 250.
Order of battle
British order of battle as provided by Clowes, p. 482.
- Alfred, 74, Captain William Bayne
- Belliqueux, 64, Captain James Brine
- Alcide, 74, Captain Charles Thompson
- Invincible, 74, Captain Sir Richard Bickerton
- Monarch, 74, Captain Francis Reynolds
- Barfleur, 90, Captain John Knight, Rear-Admiral Samuel Hood
- Terrible, 74, Captain James Ferguson
- Princessa, 70, Captain Sir Thomas Rich
- Ajax, 74, Captain John Symons
- Resolution, 74, Captain Lord Robert Manners
- Montagu, 74, Captain John Houlton
- Gibraltar, 80, Captain Charles Knatchbull, Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Samuel Drake
- Centaur, 74, Captain John Neale Pleydell Nott
- Prince William, 64, Captain Stair Douglas
- Torbay, 74, Captain John Lewis Gidoin
- Intrepid, 64, Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy
- Shrewsbury, 74, Captain Mark Robinson
- Castex (2004), pp. 175-76
- Clowes, p. 487
- Castex, Jean-Claude (2004). Dictionnaire des batailles navales franco-anglaises. Presses Université Laval. ISBN 978-2-7637-8061-0.
- Clowes, William Laird; et al. (1898). The royal navy: a history from the earliest times to the present, Volume 3. London: S. Low, Marston. OCLC 20348745.