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"HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme" Topic

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goragrad26 Feb 2018 12:29 a.m. PST

Apropos the topic on light ships taking down a first rate, I thought it might be interesting to post about this action.


Besides the few major fleet actions, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars saw many vicious encounters between small numbers of French and British ships which have since provided the inspiration for much naval fiction. One of the most ferocious of these battles was fought in the darkness of a stormy winter night off the coast of Brittany in early 1797and it established Sir Edward Pellew, later to be Lord Exmouth, as the foremost frigate captain of the era.

After the failure of the French invasion of Ireland to land the fleet boke up to return to France.

The French straggled home in ones and twos and threes, no longer a fleet. On the January 13th, one of the French 74's, the Droits de l'Homme, commanded by a Captain Raymond de Lacrosse, found herself alone off the Britany coast. Visibility was poor and Lacrosse decided to approach no nearer but to sail southward under easy sail, the wind on his starboard beam. In mid-afternoon two sails were spotted on the lee bow, between the Droits de l'Homme and the land. These proved to be Pellew's Indefatigable, in company with a 36-gun 18-pounder frigate, the Amazon, commanded by a Captain Reynolds. Pellew immediately signalled to the Amazon to give chase, and steered towards the enemy, sailing considerably faster than his smaller consort in the heavy sea.

On this winter day dusk fell early, about four-thirty and the wind, which had been fresh all day, blew a full gale. As darkness came on the Droits de l'Homme lost her fore and main topmasts in a violent squall. Fearing that there might be yet more British ships about, Lacrosse altered course to eastward, and ran straight before the gale, hoping to reach the channel leading to Brest. It was a dangerous decision, as he cannot have been certain about his exact position, and should he have mistaken his landfall, there would be no chance for a crippled ship on a lee shore in such conditions.
At five-thirty the Indefatigable, in near darkness and under close-reefed topsails, surged across the Droits de l'Homme's stern and raked her. The French ship had nearly a thousand troops on board and they peppered the Indefatigable with musket fire as she passed. Pellew's manoeuvre brought the two vessels so close together that the ensign staff of the French ship fouled the Indefatigable's mizzen rigging and British seamen dragged the tattered remains of the French tricolour on to their own quarterdeck. Lacrosse now tried to bring his vessel alongside, possibly with a view to boarding, difficult as the high seas running would make it, but Pellew managed to sheer away. The Droits de l'Homme's bowsprit actually grazed Indefatigable's spanker boom, and she in turn suffered raking fire as she turned away.

And then there is Pellew's letter to the Admiralty just after the action -


So in the real world for two frigates to take on and defeat a 74 was considered a major feat.

Jim Selzer26 Feb 2018 2:18 a.m. PST

really a thousand troops on a 74 must been stacked like cordwood and able to sleep standing up

Blutarski26 Feb 2018 7:36 a.m. PST

Take care when drawing any conclusions from the Droits de l'Homme engagement.

Having lost her fore and main topmasts in a squall before the battle, DdlH was rolling badly in the prevailing gale conditions. The rough seas, excessive rolling caused by loss of her topmasts and probably her over-loaded condition made it impossible to fight her lower gun deck 36-lbr battery. Hence, DdlH's broadside in the action was effectively reduced to that of a heavy frigate:
(15 x 18-lbr) + (8 x 8-lbr) + (2 x 36-lbr carronades)

By comparison, her principal opponent HMS Indefatigable, although technically classed as a frigate, was of a very special sort; she had started life as a 64 gun ship of the line and had been "razeed" (i.e., cut down by having her 12-lbr upper gun deck removed) into a frigate-class warship with a single gun deck. Indefatigable's broadside in her engagement with DdlH was:
(13 x 24-lbr) + (7 x 12-lbr) + (3 x 42-lbr carronades)

The comparative broadside weights of the two ships (allowing for +8 pct to convert French poundage to English equivalent are as follows:

Droits de l'Homme --- 330 lbs
Indefatigable ------- 522 lbs

Interestingly, in terms of this specific engagement, the broadside weight of HMS Amazon:
(13 x 18-lbr) + (5 x -lbr) + (5 x 32-lbr carronades)
was actually greater than that of Droits de l'Homme -

Droits de l'Homme --- 330 lbs
Amazon -------------- 439 lbs

The Devil always lurks in the details.


Yellow Admiral Supporting Member of TMP26 Feb 2018 11:14 a.m. PST

Another example of the (rare) circumstances in which small ships could take on ships of the line is the Battle of the Basque Roads.

This might be a really fun scenario to play as a one-sided game – all the players on the British side, competing to do the most damage, with the GM running the French side as non-player victims.

- Ix

Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP26 Feb 2018 12:55 p.m. PST

Blutarski's point plus the British were probably firing
50 % faster than the French.

huevans01126 Feb 2018 2:56 p.m. PST

Blutarski's point plus the British were probably firing
50 % faster than the French.

Depends how much of a taskmaster Pellew was, I guess. I raised the question of whether British rate of fire was always faster than French in another thread. Willis mentions that the British rarely drilled their gunnery in the cruise before the Glorious First of June.

Being a razee, I also going to throw in my guess that Indefatigable was far more stoutly built than a frigate and could take hard pounding.

goragrad26 Feb 2018 3:08 p.m. PST

Apparently there is an error in The Frigates – by James Henderson CBE (which I cited as a source in that other topic) as he notes that the upper battery of the Droits de l'Homme was 24 pdrs. As with that first link wiki and other sites list them as 18s.

Considering that error, Henderson notes in his account that the captain of the Droits de l'Homme was able to maneuver the ship so as to bet the frigates on his weather side at which time he was able to fire the lower battery. He also notes (apparently based on the later writings on the action by a British prisoner aboard the Droits de l'Homme) that the seas were so rough that every time the ports were opened to fire the 32 pdrs that water cascaded down upon the prisoners. Further Henderson also states that the 1st Lieutenant of the Amazon was knocked unconscious by the close passage of a 32 pd shot.

Eventually the Droits de l'Homme exhausted her supply of roundshot and was firing shell. Now that could mean that there was 32 pdr shot left that they were unable to fire with the seas running as rough as they were.

With all that, I agree Blitarski – this was an exception with a major factor being the weather and its impact on the Droits de l'Homme's ability to fire her main guns.

Henderson notes that when she was able to fire her main battery after getting the frigates on her weather side that that caused them very shortly to pull ahead away from her broadsides. I doubt any frigate (even a razee cut down from a 64) could take many 32 pdr broadsides. Although as huevans011 notes she probably had heavier timbers.

On a final note on how a lighter vessel could take down a ship of the line. As the French fleet initially started to sail back to France through the Raz de Sein at night, Pellew was able to place the the Indefatigable among the French fleet and mimicking the signals being made by a corvette to guide the rest of that fleet through the passage caused enough confusion the the 74 gun Seduisant went aground on the Grand Sevenent Rock foundering and losing half of her crew.

Blutarski26 Feb 2018 4:45 p.m. PST

Hi Goragrad -

re utility of Droits de l'Homme's lower gun-deck battery in the prevailing sea state, see Allen's "Naval History of Great Britain, Vol II, pp 11-15.

Droits de l'Homme was a (later) Temeraire Class 74 carrying 18-lbrs on the upper gun deck in accordance with the standard armament of the 74 gun class. French 74's carrying 24's on the upper gun deck were quite rare. I know of only two: Veteran and Cassard, both launched in 1803. These two ships were of the experimental "Veteran" Class: an lengthened version of the "Temeraire" Class intended to carry 24-lbrs on the upper gun-deck. According to Winfield, both ships exchanged their 24's for 18's in 1806. If you run across any other French 74's of this period, confirmed to have carried 24-lbrs, I would be grateful if you would let me know.


goragrad27 Feb 2018 1:08 a.m. PST

Ave Blutarski – Not sure where Henderson came up with the 24 pdrs – he may have just found the two experiments when searching archives. The book was originally published in 1970 – no internet then.

Frankly in 'Convoy will scatter' published just a couple of years ago the author and editor missed a couple of pages where damage to a ship in the convoy was listed as x 11 in. hits and y 8 in hits after having referred to the Scheer's armament correctly everywhere else in the book.

The only 'Naval History of Great Britain' I found was a 6 volume work by William D. James. Looked interesting so I downloaded it anyway, haven't looked through it yet.

Back to the 32 pdrs, would an 18 pdr have holed the Indefetigable below the water line? Pellew's initial dispatch noted that she had several holes there that would need repair in the dockyards.

At any rate, the storm was definitely a major factor in the conduct and outcome of the action.

Blutarski27 Feb 2018 5:28 a.m. PST

Hi Goragrad -
Allow me to recommend a very good on-line version of James, which can be found here -


I have James on my bookshelf, but find myself going to the pbenyon web version as a matter of convenience. It is very well put together, easy to navigate, reproduces all of the maps very nicely and does an especially good job on the various tabular appendices.



Blutarski27 Feb 2018 5:57 a.m. PST

"Back to the 32 pdrs, would an 18 pdr have holed the Indefatigable below the water line?"

If I'm reading Table XVII of Douglas's Treatise on Naval Gunnery (1855 edition) correctly, it appears that a French 18-lbr firing standard service charge could penetrate about 2.5 feet of oak within 200 yards.


Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP27 Feb 2018 8:49 a.m. PST

Blutarski, TYVM for the link !

goragrad27 Feb 2018 11:06 a.m. PST

That link will definitely be handier than the pdfs butarski – thanks.

And reading through his account of the action raises a couple of points.

On page 11 James writes –

At 4 h. 15 m., which was shortly after the Indefatigable had discovered the stranger to be an enemy's two-decker without a poop, and with her lowerdeck ports shut, the Droits-de-l'Homme, in a squall, carried away the maintopsail braces, and, almost at the same instant, her fore and main topmasts. This important circumstance, although omitted in Sir Edward Pellew's letter, is mentioned in the Indefatigable's log.

However in Pellew's dispatch to the Admiralty –

At 4 P.M. the Indefatigable had gained sufficiently upon the chase for me to distinguish very clearly that she had two tier of guns, with her lower deck ports shut. She had no poop, and according to my judgement she was a French ship en razée. At a quarter before 5 I observed with considerable regret that she had carried away her fore and topmasts. The Indefatigable at the same instant lost her steering-sail booms. The ship at this time was going 11 or 12 knots, blowing very hard and a great sea. I foresaw from this that the escape of the enemy under her lower masts only in a stormy night of 14 hours continuance, should her defence prove obstinate, was very possible, and I believed as a ship of large force that she would be reduced to persevere in her resistance from the expectation that we should be apprehensive of entangling ourselves upon a lee shore with the wind dead upon it.

Seems a bit of a contradiction.

On page 17 James also notes the close escape of the Amazon's lieutenant –

In describing the Amazon's loss by the fire of the Droits-de-l'Homme, we omitted to state, that Lieutenant Littlehales, while standing by the side of his captain, was knocked down by the wind of a 36-pound shot.

It would be of interest to know when during the course of the engagement that that occurred.

At any rate, thanks again.

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