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NAVAL EVENTS OF 1781 IN EUROPE. DARBY'S RELIEF OF GIBRALTAR, AND THE BATTLE OF THE DOGGER BANK
IN Europe, during the year 1781, the two leading questions which dominated the action of the belligerents were the protection, or destruction, of commerce, and the attack and defence of Gibraltar. The British Channel Fleet was much inferior to the aggregate sea forces of France and Spain in the waters of Europe; and the Dutch navy also was now hostile. The French government represented to its allies that by concentrating their squadrons near the entrance of the Channel they would control the situation in every point of view; but the Spaniards, intent upon Gibraltar, declined to withdraw their fleet from Cadiz until late in the summer, while the French persisted in keeping their own at Brest. The Channel Fleet was decisively superior to the latter, and inferior to the Spaniards in numbers only.
No relief having been given Gibraltar since Rodney had left it in February, 1780, the question of supplying the fortress became pressing. For this purpose, twenty-eight ships of the line, under Vice-Admiral George Darby, sailed from St. Helen's on the 13th of March, 1781, with a large convoy. Off Cork a number of victuallers joined, and the whole body then proceeded for Gibraltar, accompanied by five ships of the line which were destined for the East Indies, as well as by the West India and American "trade." These several attachments parted from time to time on the way, and on the 11th of April the main expedition sighted Cape Spartel, on the African coast. No attempt to intercept it was made by the great Spanish fleet in Cadiz; and on the 12th of April, at noon, the convoy anchored in the Bay of Gibraltar. That night thirteen sail of the transports, under charge of two frigates, slipped out and made their way to Minorca, then a British possession. The British ships of war continued under way, cruising in the Bay and Gut of Gibraltar.
As the convoy entered, the besiegers opened a tremendous cannonade, which was ineffectual, however, to stop the landing of the stores. More annoyance was caused by a flotilla of gunboats, specially built for this siege, the peculiar fighting power of which lay in one 26-pounder, whose great length gave a range superior to the batteries of ships of the line. Being moved by oars as well as by sails, these little vessels could choose their distance in light airs and calms, and were used so actively to harass the transports at anchor that Darby was obliged to cover them with three ships of the line. These proved powerless effectually to injure the gunboats; but, while the latter caused great annoyance and petty injury, they did not hinder the unlading nor even greatly delay it. The experience illustrates again the unlikelihood that great results can be obtained by petty means, or that massed force, force concentrated, can be effectually counteracted either by cheap and ingenious expedients, or by the cooperative exertions of many small independent units. "They were only capable of producing trouble and vexation. So far were they from preventing the succours from being thrown into the garrison, or from burning the convoy, that the only damage of any consequence that they did to the shipping was the wounding of the mizzen-mast of the Nonsuch so much that it required to be shifted."1 On the 19th of April — in one week — the revictualling was completed, and the expedi
1 Beatson, "Military and Naval Memoirs," v. 347.
tion started back for England. The fleet anchored again at Spithead on the 22d of May.
While Darby was returning, La Motte Picquet had gone to sea from Brest with six ships of the line and some frigates to cruise in the approaches to the Channel. There, on the 2d of May, he fell in with the convoy returning from the West Indies with the spoils of St. Eustatius. The ships of war for the most part escaped, but La Motte Picquet carried twenty-two out of thirty merchant ships into Brest before he could be intercepted, although a detachment of eight sail sent by Darby got close upon his heels.
After a long refit, Darby put to sea again, about the 1st of August, to cover the approach of the large convoys then expected to arrive. Being greatly delayed by head winds, he had got no further than the Lizard, when news was brought him that the Franco-Spanish grand fleet, of forty-nine ships of the line, was cruising near the Scilly Isles. Having himself but thirty of the line, he put into Tor Bay on the 24th of August, and moored his squadron across the entrance to the Bay.
This appearance of the allies was a surprise to the British authorities, who saw thus unexpectedly renewed the invasion of the Channel made in 1779. Spain, mortified justly by her failure even to molest the intrusion of succours into Gibraltar, had thought to retrieve her honour by an attack upon Minorca, for which she asked the cooperation of France. De Guichen was sent in July with nineteen ships of the line; and the combined fleets, under the chief command of the Spanish admiral, Don Luis de Cordova, convoyed the troops into the Mediterranean beyond the reach of Gibraltar cruisers. Returning thence into the Atlantic, de Cordova directed his course for the Channel, keeping far out to sea to conceal his movements. But though thus successful in reaching his ground unheralded, he made no attempt to profit by the advantage gained. The question of attacking Darby at his anchors was discussed in a council of war, at which de Guichen strongly advocated the measure; but a majority of votes decided that Great Britain would be less hurt by ruining her fleet than by intercepting the expected convoys. Even for the latter purpose, however, de Cordova could not wait. On the 5th of September he informed de Guichen that he was at liberty to return to Brest; and he himself went back to Cadiz with thirty-nine ships, nine of which were French. "This cruise of the combined fleet," says Chevalier, "diminished the consideration of France and Spain. These two powers had made a great display of force, without producing the slightest result." It may be mentioned here that Minorca, after a six months' siege, capitulated in February, 1782.
While Darby was beating down Channel in the early days of August, 1781, Vice-Admiral Hyde Parker, lately Rodney's second in command in the West Indies, was returning to England convoying a large merchant fleet from the Baltic. On the 5th of August, at daylight, a Dutch squadron, also with a convoy, but outward bound, from the Texel to the Baltic, was discovered in the south-west, near the Doggersbank. Heading as the two enemies then were, their courses must shortly intersect. Parker, therefore, ordered his convoy to steer to the westward for England, while he himself bore down for the enemy. The Dutch Rear-Admiral, Johan Arnold Zoutman, on the contrary, kept the merchant vessels with him, under his lee, but drew out the ships of war from among them, to form his order on the side towards the enemy. Each opponent put seven sail into the line. The British vessels, besides being of different rates, were chiefly very old ships, dragged out from Rotten Row to meet the pressing emergency caused by the greatly superior forces which were in coalition against Great Britain. Owing to the decayed condition of some of them, their batteries had been lightened, to the detriment of their fighting power. Two of them, however, were good and new seventy-fours. It is probable that the Dutch vessels, after a long peace, were not much better than their antagonists. In fact, each squadron was a scratch lot, in the worst sense of the phrase. The conduct of the affair by the two admirals, even to the very intensity of their pugnaciousness, contributes a tinge of the comic to the history of a desperately fought action.
The breeze was fresh at north-east, and the sea smooth. The Dutch, being to leeward, awaited attack, forming line on the port tack, heading south-east by east, a point off the wind, under topsails and foresails, a cable's length apart. There is little room to doubt that an adversary who thus holds his ground means to make a stand-up fight, but Parker, although the sun of a midsummer day had scarcely risen, thought advisable to order a general chase. Of course, no ship spared her canvas to this, while the worse sailers had to set their studdingsails to keep up; and the handling of the sails took the men off from the preparations for battle. Parker, who doubtless was still sore over Rodney's censure of the year before, and who moreover had incurred the Admiralty's rebuke, for apparent hesitation to attack the enemy's islands while temporarily in command in the West Indies, was determined now to show the fight that was in him. "It is related that, upon being informed of the force of the Dutch squadron in the morning, he replied (pulling up his breeches), 'It matters little what their force is; we must fight them if they are double the number.'" At 6.10 A.m. the signal was made for line abreast, the ships running down nearly before the wind. This of course introduced more regularity, the leading ships taking in their lighter sails to permit the others to reach their places; but the pace still was rapid. At 6.45 the order was closed to one cable, and at 7.56 the signal for battle was hoisted. It is said that at