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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Cape Finisterre

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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Cape Finisterre

Vice Admiral Robert Calder

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Cape Finisterre - Conflict:

The Battle of Cape Finisterre was fought July 22, 1805, during the War of the Third Coalition, which was in turn part of the Napoleonic Wars.

Fleets & Commanders:

British

  • Vice Admiral Robert Calder
  • 15 ships of the line

Franco-Spanish

  • Vice Admiral Pierre Charles Silvestre de Villeneuve
  • 14 French ships of the line
  • 6 Spanish ships of the line

Battle of Cape Finisterre - Background:

In the spring of 1805, Napoleon was deep into planning the invasion of England. With the 150,000 men of the Armée d'Angleterre encamped at Boulogne, the French leader began seeking ways to draw the British fleet away from the English Channel so that the army could cross. To accomplish this, a plan was conceived involving the squadrons at Toulon and Brest. These ships were to slip through the English blockade and make a feint towards the West Indies. It was believed that this movement would pull the English fleet away from the Western Approaches, allowing the invasion to commence.

Arriving in the West Indies, the two squadrons were to rendezvous off Martinique, then return to Europe where they would land troops in Ireland and then aid in the main invasion effort. Escaping Toulon on March 29, 1805, Vice Admiral Pierre Villenueve led his eleven ships of the line to Cadiz, where they were joined by six Spanish ships. Pursued by Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, Villenueve arrived at Martinique on May 12. Cruising off the island, Villenueve waited in vain for the Vice Admiral Honoré Ganteaume's Brest squadron. Unable to escape the blockade, Ganteaume's ships remained in port.

Much to the chagrin of his officers, Villenueve declined to attack British colonies in the area with the exception of capturing the outpost of Diamond Rock on June 3. Informed of Nelson's arrival at Antigua, Villenueve set course for Europe on June 11. After enduring a rough crossing, his fleet made landfall off Cape Finisterre on July 22. Alerted that Villenueve was returning to European waters, the British Admiralty directed Vice Admiral Robert Calder to abandon the blockades of Rochefort and Ferrol and intercept the Franco-Spanish fleet.

Battle of Cape Finisterre - An Incomplete Victory:

Sailing with 15 ships of the line, Calder took up a position off Cape Finisterre and began waiting for Villenueve. Around 11:00 AM on July 22, the French were sighted through the morning fog. As the day progressed, the fog remained and Calder had difficulty directing his squadron as both fleets maneuvered to the southwest. Commanding from HMS Prince of Wales (98 guns), Calder was finally able to force an action around 5:15 PM when HMS Hero (74) opened fire. Working through the smoke and fog, Calder's ships fell upon the Spanish ships of Villenueve's vanguard.

Largely unable to support the Spanish, Villenueve saw the British capture San Rafaël (80) and Firme (74). With darkness falling, Calder elected to break off the fighting around 8:25 PM. Withdrawaling a safe distance, he intended to renew the action the following morning. Though he had achieved a victory, many of his ships, including HMS Windsor Castle (98) and HMS Malta (80), had taken damage. For the next two days, the fleets remained in contact, but at a distance as each side made repairs.

During this time, Calder became concerned about the twenty French and Spanish ships of the line that were left unwatched at Ferrol and Rochefort. Worried that they might put to sea and join Villenueve, he elected to break off contact and turned northeast. Villenueve, his fleet battered, turned south towards La Coruña.

Battle of Cape Finisterre - Aftermath:

The Battle of Cape Finisterre cost Calder 39 killed and 159 wounded. For Villenueve, the day was bloodier with 476 dead and wounded, as well as around 1,200 captured in Firme and San Rafaël. Though Calder had achieved a strategic victory and Villenueve had been prevented from completing his objectives, he was immediately criticized by the Admiralty and public for failing to resume the battle on July 23. Though partially fueled by the invasion scare, this response led to Calder requesting a court-martial to clear his name.

This was granted in October 1805, and Calder returned home aboard Prince of Wales, missing the pivotal Battle of Trafalgar. Held on December 23, the court-martial acquitted Calder of cowardice and disaffection, but severely reprimanded him for not doing his utmost to renew the action. Though he never served at sea again, Calder was promoted to admiral in 1810, and made a Knight Commander in the Order of Bath on January 2, 1815. In the end, Calder's greatest failure was his inability to provide the type of crushing victory that the Royal Navy and British public had come to expect after Nelson's success at the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801), as well as Duncan's triumph at Camperdown (1797).

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Naval Warfare
  5. Naval Battles: 1800s
  6. Napoleonic Wars - Naval Battles
  7. Battle of Cape Finisterre - War of the Third Coalition - Napoleonic Wars - Robert Calder

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