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Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

"Sir Horatio Nelson when wounded at Teneriffe" by Richard Westall

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was fought July 22-25, 1797, during the Wars of the French Revolution (1792-1802).

Forces & Commanders:

British

Spanish

  • Lieutenant General Antonio Gutiérrez de Otero y Santayana
  • 1,700 men

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife - Overview:

In the wake of his victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, Admiral Sir John Jervis, was instructed to attack the port of Cádiz with the goal of destroying the remnants of the Spanish fleet. Moving forward, the assault was a costly failure as the Spanish mounted a spirited defense. With morale in the fleet low due to the defeat and having been at sea for a long period, Jervis shifted his attention to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. A stopping point for Spanish treasure ships from the Americas, Tenerife offered a tempting target.

Dispatching two frigates to scout the area around the island, Jervis was pleased when they captured two enemy ships and reported on Tenerife's defenses. Seeing an opportunity, Jervis detached newly-promoted Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson with a small squadron and tasked him to capture the island. Flying his flag from HMS Theseus (74 guns), Nelson's squadron also included HMS Culloden (74), HMS Zealous (74), as well as the frigates HMS Seahorse (38), HMS Emerald, (36), and HMS Terpsichore (32). Also accompanying Nelson were the cutter Fox and the gunboat Ray.

Arriving off Tenerife on July 17, Nelson was later reinforced by the arrival of Captain Thomas Thompson with HMS Leander (50). Ashore, the Spanish defenses were led by Lieutenant General Antonio Gutiérrez de Otero y Santaya. A veteran commander, Gutiérrez had spent the weeks since Jervis' initial raid raising additional troops from the island's population and reinforcing the defenses around its capital of Santa Cruz. Leading a force of around 1,700 men, Gutiérrez was prepared to meet any attack. Aboard his flagship, Nelson readied his assault plan.

This called for Captain Thomas Troubridge of Culloden to conduct a nighttime landing northeast of Santa Cruz with the goal of capturing the coastal batteries on that side of the city. This was to be followed by Ray opening fire on the town as Nelson entered the harbor with the fleet to capture Spanish shipping. Meeting with Troubridge on July 20, Nelson finalized the plans and instructed his subordinate to land at Valle Seco beach, approximately two miles northeast of Santa Cruz, and capture nearby Fort Paso Alto. If the city did not surrender, Troubridge was to advance with around 1,000 men to take the port.

Embarking in small boats on the night of July 22, Troubridge's force met adverse currents which slowed their advance. Alerted to the British approach, the Spanish gunners opened fire inflicting some damage. Unable to defeat the current, Troubridge turned back. A second attempt was then made with the frigates towing the boats as close to shore as possible. Battling through the current and Spanish fire, Troubridge succeeded in landing his men but was unable bring ashore any artillery or animals. Moving to block the threat, Gutiérrez brought forces to Paso Alto and compelled the British to retire to their boats.

Angered by this failure, Nelson decided to personally oversee the next attack which would be against the city itself. Anticipating this move, Gutiérrez concentrated his forces in the port defenses which were centered on San Cristóbal castle. Instructing his men to move against the castle, Nelson and his attack force set out at 10:30 PM on July 24. Muffling the oars to reduce noise, the boats neared the shore. The attackers were soon spotted by the Spanish frigate San Jose and the harbor batteries opened fire around 11:00 PM.

Taking heavy fire the British boats struggled to reach the shore. In the bombardment, Fox was hit and sunk, killing over half its crew. Reaching the beach, Nelson was hit in the right arm as he stepped ashore. Bleeding badly, he was taken back to Theseus where the ship's surgeon amputated the injured limb. Within thirty minutes of the operation, Nelson was again issuing orders to his men. At the beaches, Troubridge and Captain Samuel Hood of Zealous succeeded in capturing La Consolación convent with 350 men. Other British forces failed in their attempt to take the castle.

Increasingly isolated, Troubridge demanded that Gutiérrez surrender San Jose or he would burn the town. Disregarding this threat, Gutiérrez moved troops to cut off Troubridge's retreat. Seeking to aid his subordinates, Nelson dispatched reinforcements, but these were repulsed by the Spanish guns around 1:00 AM on July 25. Trapped, Troubridge requested honorable terms for a withdrawal from the Spanish commander. Gutiérrez agreed and a truce was signed early the next morning which allowed the British to return to their ships with their arms and honors.

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife - Aftermath

The failed attack on Santa Cruz cost Nelson 250 killed and 128 wounded, while the Spanish suffered around 30 killed and 40 wounded. Departing Tenerife, Nelson rejoined Jervis' fleet on August 16. Saddened by the defeat and the loss of his arm, Nelson wrote to Jervis stating, "A left-handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve the state..." Returning to England aboard Seahorse, Nelson was met with a hero's welcome for his accomplishments at Cape St. Vincent and the loss of his arm. Among the public, the defeat at Tenerife was attributed to the government and to poor planning on the part of Jervis. Recovering quickly, Nelson returned to sea that December and set off on the campaign that would culminate with his victory at the Battle of the Nile.

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 Santa Cruz de Tenerife - Horatio Nelson Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

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