The War for America: 1775-1783

By Piers Mackesy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XIV
THE STRATEGY OF 1779

I. The Autumn Deployment

The return of the Channel fleet from its summer operations always marked the start of a new period of naval planning, and was followed by a winter deployment. Reinforcements were found for the campaigning seasons in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, and the remainder of the fleet was brought in for its winter refit. When Keppel returned, the situation had improved so much since the spring that a small squadron could now be spared for the Mediterranean, to check the French squadron which remained in Toulon and keep the trade routes open. Enemy squadrons were preparing in Brest for overseas service; and five British ships of the line were therefore intended to reinforce the Leeward Islands, and three to strengthen the Indian squadron whose reinforcement had been postponed in the spring for the sake of America. The ships for India could even create an opportunity for a small operation in West Africa, a battalion attack on the French slave settlement of Goree.

But towards the middle of October the prospect was darkened by an intervention from Madrid. The Spaniards came forward with an offer of mediation whose hostile tone suggested that they would soon align themselves with the enemy. Spain was the third naval power in the world, and her intervention would utterly change the prospect for which Britain was laying her plans. The King stood firm against a compromise; for with Spain and France armed to the teeth he argued that only from the test of war could stability emerge. And if the Spaniards could be kept quiet through the winter, he thought the navy might be strong enough to face both the Bourbon Powers.1 But Sandwich, though equally convinced that Spain would enter the war unless she were bought off at a high price, could not treat the danger so boldly. Better than anyone he knew the facts about the country's naval strength; and he feared that if Spain entered the war that autumn England would pay for her late start in the armaments race. Jamaica and Minorca might be lost at once; and though Gibraltar could stand a long siege it would also fall in the end if the fleet could not relieve it. So near were the Spaniards to achieving their objects.

We must temporise, said Sandwich. Two months could be gained by asking for explanations: time to reinforce Minorca, to send a squadron to

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1
G 2434, 2464.

-249-

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