Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Battle of Cape St Vincent - continued

Half an hour after his last signal, Jervis ordered the fleet to 'tack in succession'.  This meant that they would all turn at the same point, following the leading ship and keeping the line intact.

Troubridge had been prepared for this order, and as soon as he saw the signal immediately turned the Culloden, heading towards the main body of the Spanish.  But this manoeuvre was not without its difficulties.  During the turn, the ships would leave their sterns vulnerable to enemy broadsides, and Moreno recognised this.  If he could identify the turning point and position his ships there, he could cause significant damage.

The second British ship, the Blenheim, successfully followed the Culloden's turn.  The third ship, the Prince George, flagship of Rear-Admiral Parker who led the van division, also made the turn, but by this time the Principe de Asturias was coming to attack with four other ships.  The Orion then made the turn but the Colossus behind her was not so lucky.  She came under fire from Moreno's ships and some of her sails were destroyed, so she went out of control.  Moreno did not waste time in ordering his crew to prepare to board the Colossus but, as the British ship dropped out of the line, Captain Saumarez slowed the Orion so was able to cover her, and shot at the Principe de Asturias.  The Colossus continued to drift northwards, and the next ship in the British line, the Irresistible, was able to get alongside the Spanish ship and fire at her.  Under such heavy fire, there was no way the Spanish could even attempt to board the stricken Colossus.
As the Irresistible completed her turn, it was Jervis' flagship, the Victory, that next came under fire from Moreno's undeterred attacks.  But when the Victory came to a stop, the Principe de Asturias was forced to turn suddenly, putting her in the perfect position to receive massive broadsides from the British admiral's flagship.

Still, Moreno doggedly continued his attacks.  The Egmont, coming up behind the Victory, was fired upon by two of the ships in his division.  The Goliath came next and exchanged fire with the Principe de Asturias and Conde de Regla.  She managed to complete her turn, but the determined Spanish attack had left her rigging badly damaged.  

An hour after the British had cut the line, Moreno finally gave up, and decided to attempt to go around the front of the British line and join up with Córdova's division that way.  His repeated and determined attacks, coming under fire from several British ships, earned Nelson's praise, who later said that he "did everything which a good officer could do to attempt to cut through the British line".

Moreno may not have succeeded in penetrating the British line, but his defeat of the Colossus, and forcing the Victory to stop and fend him off, meant that Troubridge's Culloden was pulling ahead of the rest of the British line and was about to reach the Spanish fleet with little support and completely exposed to heavy Spanish fire.  

As Jervis went up onto the Victory's poop deck, the better to view and assess the situation, a seaman standing near him had his head blown off by a Spanish shot, covering him in brains and blood.  The Victory's captain, George Grey, initially thought that the blood was Jervis' own and rushed up to check he was ok.  Unfazed by the incident, Jervis continued his deliberations, but did ask for an orange so he could rinse his mouth.

If the Culloden continued on her current course, she'd put herself in grave danger.  So the obvious option seemed to be to signal for her to withdraw and wait for the rest of the British.  But this could give Córdova chance to escape, so instead Jervis altered his strategy.  He signalled to the Britannia, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Thompson leading the rear division, for 'the leading ship to tack and others in succession'.  This manoeuvre would effectively split the fleet into two lines, enabling the rear division to reach the Spanish and attack earlier than if they'd continued to the original turning point.  He followed this up with a signal to every ship to 'take up suitable stations for mutual support and engage the enemy as arriving up in succession'.

But Thompson in the Britannia did not follow the order, and did not turn.

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