Battle of Quiberon Bay - Conflict & Date:
The Battle of Quiberon Bay was fought November 20, 1759, during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).
Fleets & Commanders
Battle of Quiberon Bay - Background:
In 1759, French military fortunes were waning as the British and their allies were gaining the upper hand in many theaters. Seeking a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the Duc de Choiseul began planning for an invasion of Britain. Preparations soon commenced and invasion craft were gathered for a thrust across the Channel. The French plans were badly damaged during the summer when a British attack on Le Havre wrecked many of these barges in July and Admiral Edward Boscawen defeated the French Mediterranean fleet at Lagos in August. Reassessing the situation, Choiseul decided to push forward with an expedition to Scotland. As such, transports were assembled in the protected waters of the Gulf of Morbihan while an invasion army formed near Vannes and Auray.
To escort the invasion force to Britain, the Comte de Conflans was to bring his fleet south from Brest to Quiberon Bay. This done, the combined force would move north against the enemy. Complicating this plan was the fact that Admiral Sir Edward Hawke's Western Squadron was holding Brest under close blockade. In early November, a large westerly gale stuck the area and Hawke was forced to run north to Torbay. While the bulk of the squadron rode out the weather, he left Captain Robert Duff with five small ships of the line (50 guns each) and nine frigates to watch the invasion fleet at Morbihan. Taking advantage of the gale and shift in the wind, Conflans was able to slip out of Brest with twenty-one ships of the line on November 14.
Battle of Quiberon Bay - Sighting the Enemy:
That same day, Hawke departed Torbay to return to his blockade station off Brest. Sailing south, he learned two days later that Conflans had put to sea and was heading south. Moving to pursue, Hawke's squadron of twenty-three ships of the line used superior seamanship to close the gap despite contrary winds and worsening weather. Early on November 20, as he neared Quiberon Bay, Conflans spotted Duff's squadron. Badly outnumbered, Duff split his ships with one group moving north and the other moving south. Seeking an easy victory, Conflans ordered his van and center to pursue the enemy while his rearguard held back to observe strange sails approaching from the west.
Sailing hard, the first of Hawke's ships to spot the enemy was Captain Richard Howe's HMS Magnanime (70). Around 9:45 AM, Hawke signaled for a general chase and fired three guns. Devised by Admiral George Anson, this modification called for the seven leading ships to form line ahead as they chased. Pressing hard despite increasing gale winds, Hawke's squadron quickly closed with the French. This was aided by Conflans pausing to deploy his entire fleet in line ahead.
Battle of Quiberon Bay - A Bold Attack:
With the British approaching, Conflans steered for the safety of Quiberon Bay. Littered with a myriad of rocks and shoals, he did not believe Hawke would pursue him into its waters especially in heavy weather. Rounding Le Cardinaux, rocks at the entrance to the bay, at 2:30 PM, Conflans believed he had reached safety. Shortly after his flagship, Soleil Royal (80), passed the rocks, he heard the leading British ships opening fire on his rearguard. Charging in, Hawke, aboard HMS Royal George (100), had no intention of breaking off the pursuit and decided to let the French ships serve as his pilots in the bay's dangerous waters. With the British captains seeking to engage his ships, Conflans' tacked his fleet up the bay hoping to reach the Morbihan.
With the British ships seeking individual actions, a dramatic shift the wind occurred around 3:00 PM. This saw the gale begin blowing from the northwest and made the Morbihan unreachable for the French. Forced to change his plan, Conflans sought to exit the bay with his unengaged ships and make for open water before nightfall. Passing Le Cardinaux at 3:55 PM, Hawke was pleased to see the French reverse course and moving in his direction. He immediately directed Royal George's sailing master to put the ship alongside Conflans' flagship. As he did so, other British ships were fighting their own battles. This saw the flagship of the French rearguard, Formidable (80), captured and HMS Torbay (74) cause Thésée (74) to founder.
Battle of Quiberon Bay - Finishing the Victory:
Wearing towards Dumet Island, Conflans' group came under direct attack from Hawke. Engaging Superbe (70), Royal George sank the French ship with two broadsides. Shortly after this, Hawke saw an opportunity to rake Soleil Royal but was thwarted by Intrépide (74). As the fighting raged, the French flagship collided with two of its comrades. With daylight fading, Conflans found that he had been forced south towards Le Croisic and was leeward of the large Four Shoal. Unable to escape before nightfall, he directed his remaining ships to anchor. Around 5:00 PM Hawke issued similar orders however part of the fleet failed to receive the message and continued pursuing French ships northeast towards the River Vilaine. Though six French ships safely entered the river, a seventh, Inflexible (64), grounded at its mouth.
During the night, HMS Resolution (74) was lost on the Four Shoal, while nine French ships successfully escaped the bay and made for Rochefort. One of these, the battle-damaged Juste (70), was lost on the rocks near St. Nazaire. When the sun rose on November 21, Conflans found that Soleil Royal and Héros (74) were anchored near the British fleet. Quickly cutting their lines, they attempted to make for the harbor of Le Croisic and were pursued by the British. Proceeding in heavy weather, both French ships grounded on the Four Shoal as did HMS Essex (64). The next day, when the weather had improved, Conflans ordered Soleil Royal burned while British sailors crossed to and set Héros afire.
Battle of Quiberon Bay - Aftermath:
A stunning and daring victory, the Battle of Quiberon Bay saw the French lose seven ships of the line and Conflans' fleet shattered as an effective fighting force. The defeat ended French hopes of mounting any type of invasion in 1759. In exchange, Hawke lost two ships of the line on the shoals of Quiberon Bay. Lauded for his aggressive tactics, Hawke shifted his blockading efforts south to the bay and the Biscay ports. Having broken the back of French naval strength, the Royal Navy was increasingly free to operate against French colonies worldwide. The Battle of Quiberon Bay marked the final victory of Britain's Annus Mirabilis of 1759. This year of victories saw British and allied forces have success at Fort Duquesne, Guadeloupe, Minden, Lagos, as well as Major General James Wolfe's victory at the Battle of Quebec.