The War for America: 1775-1783

By Piers Mackesy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXII
THE DEFENCE OF THE EAST ATLANTIC

1. Gibraltar and the Cape

The resolution on New Year's Day to send the Channel Fleet to Gibraltar had implications far graver than the similar decision of the previous winter. Rodney's relieving force had been clear of the Channel before the end of the year: Darby had still to receive his orders and assemble his ships and convoy. Nor was the fleet ready. Many of his ships had been withdrawn in the early autumn to make up Hood's reinforcement for the West Indies; but the twenty-two sail of the line which remained with him stayed at sea longer. even than Hardy's fleet in 1779, for at the end of October it put out to intercept Guichen's return from the West Indies. But the enemy did not intend to risk Guichen and his convoy off Ushant. Their main fleet was with the Spaniards at Cadiz; and there Guichen was brought. Early in November the whole French fleet of thirty-eight sail of the line sailed for its home port. As it came northwards Sir Samuel Hood left Spithead for the West Indies, little suspecting the danger towards which his convoy was steering. Happily for the British Empire the enemy was sighted off Finisterre by the Crescent frigate, which turned northwards to search for the Channel fleet. Approaching the Channel she met Hood with his convoy, and with this warning he held a northerly course to keep out of the enemy's track. The French entered Brest without incident on 3 January. In the meantime Darby had returned on 21 December for his winter refit after a vain cruise of two months in the Bay of Biscay.

Once again winter cruising had exercised a disastrous influence on future strategy. Though the relief of Gibraltar was decided on 1 January, it was not till 13 March that Darby could sail; and such was the shortage of men that if Amherst had had his way and withdrawn the two regiments on loan to the fleet, four or five capital ships would have been immobilised and the expedition could never have sailed.1 Instead of a winter relief, the Channel fleet was going to Gibraltar at the very moment when it was needed for the spring operations in home waters. Even now his convoy was not complete. His storeships were with him; but the loading of provisions in the depot at Cork had been held up waiting for victualling transports to return from

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1
WO 34/236. pp. 403, 763; WO 34/122, ff. 82-3.

-388-

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