Tuesday, 20 August 2013

"By God, I'll not lose Hardy!"

After a long break, time to return to my series on the Battle of Cape St Vincent!

On the 9th February 1797, Nelson arrived at Gibraltar, having been unsuccessful in his search for the Spanish fleet.  His passenger, Gilbert Elliot, went ashore to report to the governor, but Nelson was itching to get back out to sea.  He turned down invitations to dine ashore, and even impatiently sent a note to Elliot's secretary asking for the party to be on board La Minerve by 8pm.  He knew that a battle was imminent and didn't want to miss it.  But one good thing to come out of the delay was that he was able to pick up Lieutenant's Culverhouse and Hardy after the exchange of prisoners.

Finally, Elliot finished his business ashore and boarded La Minerve.  But just as she set off, two Spanish ships emerged from nearby Algeciras and gave chase.  They began to close in, and as Nelson paced the quarterdeck with Colonel John Drinkwater, the Colonel asked him if an engagement was likely.  Nelson replied that it was possible, then looked up at his broad pendant flying from the mast, and added, 

"But before the Dons get hold of that bit of bunting I will have a struggle with them and sooner than give up the frigate I'll run her ashore."

But even as the Spanish frigates came close enough that Elliot began to prepare to throw his confidential papers overboard to stop them falling into enemy hands, a cry went up that a man had fallen overboard.  The officers who had been entertaining Elliot and his party in the cabin rushed up on deck, and Hardy quickly lowered a boat over the side of the ship, manning it himself.  But there was no sign of the man, so the crew of the boat started to row back to the ship.  

The current was against them, and they made slow progress.  The Spanish frigates were closing in, and it started to look as if poor Hardy would be captured again.  It was a tense few moments, until Nelson could take it no longer and cried,

"By God, I'll not lose Hardy!  Back the mizzen topsail."

So the ship slowed down enough that Hardy in his boat could catch up and get aboard.  It seemed certain that the Spanish ship the Terrible would force them into a fight, but all of a sudden she shortened sail and dropped back.  Nelson's slowing La Minerve had taken the Spanish commander by surprise, and he probably thought that Nelson had seen the British fleet and was luring him into a trap.  Whatever the reason, it allowed Nelson to escape.

During the night, Nelson turned to the south to make sure he threw off his pursuers, but found himself in the middle of the Spanish fleet!  Luckily, Minerve managed to creep through undetected in the darkness, and in the morning went north towards Cadiz.  Now he knew exactly where the enemy were, Nelson rushed to find Jervis and arrived on the 13th February.  Culverhouse and Hardy, having been prisoners of the Spanish, also had valuable information about the fleet.
Preparing for Battle
Two days before Nelson arrived back at the fleet, the convoy he'd sent from Elba got there.  The Southampton reported seeing the Spanish fleet, and that they had been damaged in the storm.  The Bonne Citoyenne brought yet another report, this time that the Spanish were 20 miles to the south-east, and heading for Cadiz.  So by the time Nelson arrived, Jervis had the fleet preparing for battle and sailing towards where the enemy had been seen.

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