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Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Camperdown


Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Camperdown

Battle of Camperdown

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Camperdown - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Camperdown was fought October 11, 1797, during the Wars of the French Revolution (1792-1802).

Fleets & Commanders


  • Admiral Adam Duncan
  • 16 ships of the line


  • Vice Admiral Jan de Winter
  • 16 ships of the line

  • Battle of Camperdown - Background:

    With the beginning of the War of the First Coalition in 1792, France began a series of campaigns on the Continent. While French forces achieved success on land, they struggled to achieve similar results at sea. In 1794, Admiral Lord Richard Howe smashed a French fleet at the Glorious First of June while a French expedition to Ireland failed badly two years later. In late 1794, French forces attacked the Dutch Republic and occupied the nation after a brief winter campaign. This saw the French capture the bulk of the Dutch fleet which had been icebound near Den Helder. This proved a coup as the Dutch ships bolstered the French naval numbers in northern waters. With the French reorganizing the country as the Batavian Republic, planning moved forward for combined operations involving the two fleets. In the meantime, the French suffered another naval blow when their Spanish allies were beaten by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in February 1797.

    Battle of Camperdown - The British Response:

    Due to the location of the main Dutch fleet anchorage off Texel, the Royal Navy found itself forced to begin redeploying its forces to meet this new threat. Already stretched thin, it activated a variety of reserve warships and concentrated them at Great Yarmouth under the command of 65-year-old Admiral Adam Duncan. While Duncan prepared his forces, the Channel Fleet at Spithead was put out of action in April by a widespread mutiny. Mounting a largely peaceful strike, sailors in the fleet lobbied for better pay and improved living conditions. Negotiating with Howe, they mostly achieved their aims and resumed service. The Spithead Mutiny was followed by a similar action at the Nore in May. As the crisis progressed, Duncan received word that his force might be needed for an attack on the Nore mutineers. This led to widespread dissatisfaction in his fleet. As a result, when Duncan learned that the Dutch under Vice Admiral Jan de Winter were preparing to sail, only one other vessel joined him in leaving the harbor.

    Sailing aboard his flagship, HMS Venerable (74 guns), Duncan was joined by HMS Adamant (50) and the frigate HMS Circe. Using a variety of signal ruses, Duncan operated off Texel and attempted to convince the Dutch that the bulk of his fleet was over the horizon. Joined by additional ships from his command, he remained in the area until mid-June. Returning to port, he found that the last of the mutinies had been broken. Re-provisioning, Duncan soon resumed a blockade of the Dutch. At Texel, de Winter had been planning to move south to Brest with the goal of uniting with the French as a precursor to an invasion of Ireland. Trapped in port due to contrary winds, de Winter elected to abandon this plan in August. Learning of the change in Dutch intentions, the Admiralty directed Duncan to retire to Yarmouth on October 1 to refit and repair.

    Battle of Camperdown - de Winter Sails:

    Unwilling to leave the Dutch unobserved, Duncan ordered Captain Henry Trollope of HMS Russell (74) to remain on station with a small force. This proved wise as de Winter emerged on October 8. Steering southwest, the Dutch admiral intended to conduct a sweep of the southern North Sea in the hopes of overwhelming any British forces in the area. Spotting the Dutch as they left Texel, Trollope began sending dispatches to Duncan and commenced tracking de Winter's movements. Learning that the Dutch fleet had left harbor early on October 9, Duncan quickly prepared his fleet for sea and departed for Texel. Turning northwest on October 10, de Winter passed along the Suffolk coast before Dutch fishing vessels began informing him that Duncan had sailed. Unable to shake Trollope, de Winter turned for home. Alerted to this, Duncan moved down the Dutch coast with the goal of intercepting the enemy.

    Battle of Camperdown - Contact is Made:

    At 7:00 AM on October 11, Trollope sighted Duncan and signaled that de Winter was a short distance to the southwest. Despite the frequent rain squalls and heavy winds, the British fleet located the Dutch at 8:30 AM as they steered towards the coast near the village of Camperduin. As de Winter directed his fleet to form a line of battle, Duncan sought mimic Howe's tactics of 1794 by having his ships turn towards the enemy and attack each gap in the Dutch formation. As a British ship passed through the enemy line it was to rake the French ship on each side. This done, they were to move up on the leeward side of their opposite numbers, engage, and cut off their retreat. As the fleets approached shore, this plan became impractical and Duncan issued a series of confusing signals in response to the changing conditions. The situation was made worse by the poor visibility and some ships using old code books.

    Battle of Camperdown - The Attack Begins:

    Increasingly concerned about the nearing coastline, Duncan finally signaled his fleet to directly attack the Dutch with each ship ordered to "steer for and engage her opponent." As a result of Duncan's series of signals, the British fleet approached in two large groups with the flagship, Venerable, leading the northern group and Vice Admiral Richard Onslow's HMS Monarch (74) heading the southern formation. De Winter had intended to maintain a solid defensive line while moving into shallow coastal waters however Duncan's unorthodox approach led to confusion and gaps opened between the Dutch van, center, and rear. Though de Winter attempted to close these gaps, he was unable to do so before the British struck. Fighting began shortly after noon when Onslow's force of eight ships of the line bore down on the last four ships in the Dutch line.

    Battle of Camperdown - The Dutch Rear is Crushed:

    Under heavy fire, Monarch penetrated the Dutch line between Jupiter (72) and Haarlem (68). Raking both, Onslow's ship soon came under attack from the frigate Monnikkendam (44) and brig Daphné (18). Turning on the smaller vessels, Onslow rapidly pounded both into submission as HMS Powerful (74) followed Monarch through the enemy line. As the fighting raged, HMS Montagu engaged Alkmaar (56) and Trollope's Russell battled Delft (56). Supporting these actions, HMS Monmouth (64) passed between Alkmaar and Delft, raking both, while HMS Director (64) moved up the line and commenced action against Haarlem. Only HMS Agincourt (64) remained largely out of the battle. Despite the worsening weather conditions, Onslow's ships succeeded in compelling all four Dutch ships of the line to surrender before 1:45 PM while the frigate HMS Beaulieu (40) captured Monnikkendam.

    Battle of Camperdown - Duncan Strikes the Van:

    Approximately twenty minutes after Onslow went into action to the south, Duncan's force struck in the north. Though he desired to break the Dutch line between de Winter's flagship, Vrijheid (74), and Staaten Generaal (74), heavy fire forced Duncan to pass behind the latter ship. Raking and badly damaging Staaten Generaal, Venerable moved to engage Vrijheid from the east. As the same time, HMS Ardent (64) joined the attack but took heavy damage from Vrijheid and Admiraal Tjerk Hiddes De Vries (68). As the two British ships began to receive fire from the bulk of the nearby Dutch ships, HMS Triumph (74) and HMS Bedford (74) arrived on the scene. While the former engaged Wassenaar (64), the latter took on both Admiraal Tjerk Hiddes De Vries and Hercules (64). Elsewhere, HMS Belliqueux (64) battled Beschermer (56) and HMS Isis (50) took on Gelijkheid (68). The fighting became increasingly desperate as the arrival of ships from the Dutch center gave de Winter a numerical advantage. Combating the increasingly poor weather conditions, the British won victories when the captain of Beschermer was killed and the ship drifted from the fight and when a fire broke out aboard Hercules. As the burning ship moved through the battle, Wassenaar surrendered to Triumph. This defeat proved short-lived as the Dutch ship rejoined the fight after Triumph departed to aid Venerable against Vrijheid.

    Battle of Camperdown - Onslow Moves Up:

    Having won a crushing victory over the Dutch rear, Onslow directed his least-damaged ships to move north and aid Duncan. While Powerful and Director joined in the assault on Vrijheid, Russell captured Hercules whose fires had been extinguished. As additional British ships joined the fray, the leaderless Beschermer turned for shore followed by a large number of unengaged Dutch ships. While Wassenaar was forced to surrender a second time, this time to Russell, both Admiraal Tjerk Hiddes De Vries and Gelijkheid finally struck their colors in the face of the larger British numbers. Fighting on alone, Vrijheid soon was completely dismasted though de Winter refused a demand from Captain William Bligh of Director to surrender. De Winter's flagship finally fell when Bligh's men boarded and overwhelmed its surviving crew.

    Battle of Camperdown - Aftermath

    In the fighting at the Battle of Camperdown, Duncan succeeded in capturing nine Dutch ships of the line as well as two frigates. Casualties for de Winter numbered around 540 killed, 620 wounded while Duncan's fleet sustained 203 killed and 622 wounded. Due to the severe weather, Delft and the two captured frigates were lost on the return voyage to Great Yarmouth. A stunning victory, Duncan succeeded in eliminating the threat posed by the Dutch fleet and further frustrated French ambitions for an invasion of Ireland. In recognition of his achievements, Duncan was created Viscount Duncan of Camperdown and Baron Duncan of Lundie while Onslow was made a baronet and Trollope knighted. The victory at Camperdown marked the Royal Navy's greatest triumph to date over an enemy force of equal size. In the years that followed, the battle would be eclipsed in memory by Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson's victories at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.

    Selected Sources

  • Napoleon Guide: Battle of Camperdown
  • Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Camperdown

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