1756-05-20 - Battle of Minorca

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Battles >> 1756-05-20 - Battle of Minorca

French naval victory

Prelude to the battle

As early as October 1755, the British Ministry of War had received intelligence that the French armaments in the Mediterranean were destined to an expedition against Minorca. However, it did not take significant measures to counter this menace on one of his most important naval base.

On March 8, the British admiralty ordered to place a squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral Byng for the protection of Minorca. The squadron had to be ready by March 11. Byng was promoted admiral for the circumstance. The position of second in command was given to Rear-Admiral Temple West. Byng was given only 10 ships of the line to fulfill his mission while there were 27 ships of the line cruising in the Channel and Bay of Biscay, 28 ships of the line in commission at home, and many small craft, which might have been detailed for the service. But Byng was not permitted to utilise any of these, or to draw crews from them. His mission was evidently regarded as a wholly subsidiary one. Byng was directed to take on board the absent officers of the Minorca garrison and a reinforcement of troops, consisting of the 7th Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, under the command of Colonel Lord Robert Bertie. To make room for these men, all the marines belonging to the squadron were sent on shore. With no marines on board, Byng would not have been able to conduct an action at sea after the eventual disembarkation of the British infantry at Port Mahon.

On April 6, after much delay, a British fleet of 10 ships of the line finally set sail from St. Helen's under Admiral Byng to the Mediterranean. It consisted of:

Byng carried the 7th Fusiliers on board his fleet which was so slenderly manned that he required the 7th for duty on board ship. Meanwhile, the French army had completed its embarkation for the expedition against Minorca.

On April 10, a French fleet of 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates under M. de la Galissonière weighed from Toulon. It escorted 198 sails carrying some 16,000 men (24 battalions organised in 5 brigades with an artillery battalion, at least 36 guns and engineers) under the Duc de Richelieu.

On April 18, the French landed unopposed at Ciutadella, at the north-western end of Minorca. By April 20, the entire French army had disembarked.

On April 22, the French began the siege of Fort St. Philip which was to last until June 28.

On April 23, Commodore Edgcumbe's squadron, consisting of two British ships of the line (Portland (50) and Princess Louisa (60)), two frigates (Chesterfield (44), Dolphin (24)) and a sloop of war (Porcupine (16)); left the harbour of Mahon and sailed for Gibraltar.

On April 24, Admiral de la Galissonière left Ciutadella with his squadron and lay anchor in front of Mahon harbour. However, he arrived too late to intercept Edcumbe's squadron.

On May 2, Byng's squadron arrived at Gibraltar where he joined Edgcumbe's squadron. Upon his arrival, Byng received intelligence that the Toulon squadron had landed a French army in Minorca, and that the enemy was already in possession of almost every strong position in the island. Byng then communicated to Lieutenant-General Fowke, the governor of Gibraltar, an order from home to the effect that, subject to certain conditions, a detachment from the garrison, equal to a battalion of men, was to be embarked on board the fleet.

On May 4, Fowke assembled a council of war to decide upon the request of a battalion by Admiral Byng which was rejected on the ground that it would be extremely dangerous, if not impracticable, to throw succour into Port Mahon and, secondly, that the garrison of Gibraltar was already too weak to spare the specified detachment without danger to itself. Yet as the fleet was in great want of men, and as Edgcumbe's ships had left their marines and some of their seamen in Minorca to assist in the work of defence, Fowke permitted 1 captain, 6 subalterns, 9 sergeants, 11 corporals, 5 drummers and 200 privates to embark, it being represented to him that, without such reinforcement, several of the ships would be absolutely unable to go into action.

On May 8, Byng sailed from Gibraltar with an easterly wind. He was accompanied by the whole of Edgcumbe's little force, excepting the Phoenix (24), which had been blockaded at Palma de Majorca, by 2 French frigates.

On May 17, the Phoenix joined Byng's squadron off Majorca.

On May 18, Admiral de la Galissonière reported to Richelieu that a British relief fleet was in sight at Palma. He asked him for infantrymen to reinforce his ships. Richelieu sent him 13 companies of infantry. However, only three companies managed to join the fleet before its departure. At about 9:00 p.m., a brisk northerly breeze sprang up.

On May 19 at daybreak, Byng's squadron arrived in sight of Fort St. Philip. Byng at once despatched the Phoenix (24), Chesterfield (44) and Dolphin (24) to reconnoitre the mouth of the harbour, to pick up intelligence, and to endeavour to send ashore a letter to General Blakeney. Captain Augustus John Hervey, the senior officer of the advanced squadron, drew in with the shore and tried to communicate with the Castle of St. Philip. Immediately, de la Galissonière took the sea with his fleet and advanced to meet Byng. When it appeared to south-east of Byng's position, it forced him to call back his ships before they had time to make any useful observations. Byng then stood towards the French squadron and made the signal for a general chase. Both squadrons made sail towards one another and, at 2:00 p.m., the British commander-in-chief made the signal for a line of battle ahead. But, the wind dropping, this order could not be properly carried out. In the meantime he took the precaution of reinforcing such of the ships as were most weakly manned, by means of drafts from the frigates, and he directed that the Phoenix, which had been reported as unfit for general service, should be made ready to act as a fireship in case of necessity. At 5:00 p.m., Byng formed his line on which the French stood towards him in a regular line. At about 6:00 p.m., the French advanced in order, with 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates; the van being commanded by M. Grandevez, the centre by M. de La Galissonnière, and the rear by M. de La Clue. An hour later, at 7:00 p.m., the French tacked, and went away a distance of about 10 km, with a view to gaining the weather-gage; and Byng, to preserve that advantage, tacked likewise.

Description of Events

On the following morning, May 20, 2 French tartans, which had been sent out by the Duc de Richelieu with soldiers to reinforce Admiral de La Galissonnière, were chased by the Princess Louisa (60), Defiance (60) and Captain (64); one of them being taken by the Defiance, and the other escaping. At daylight, the weather being hazy, the two fleets were not within sight of each other. Soon afterward, the French fleet (12 ships and 5 frigates) began to appear in the south-east. The wind was easterly heading southerly.

Byng called in the cruisers and, once they had joined him, tacked towards the French and formed the line ahead while the French were preparing to form theirs to the leeward, between the British and the harbour. Byng ran down in line ahead off the wind, the French remaining by it.

At noon, the British fleet had the advantage of the wind. As soon as Byng judged his rear to be the length of the French van, they tacked.

At 2:00 p.m., Admiral Byng made the signal to engage. At that time, the fleets were not parallel but formed an angle of from 30° to 40°. Byng planned to bring each ship against its opposite in the French line, asking the Deptford (60) to quit the line in order to oppose the exact same number of ships to the French. This complex manoeuvre was made even more difficult by the important distance separating the two rears. Byng's whole line could not come into action at the same moment. When the signal was made, the van ships under Rear-Admiral Temple West kept away in obedience to it, and ran down for the French so nearly head on as to sacrifice their artillery fire in great measure. They received three raking broadsides and were seriously dismantled aloft. The sixth British ship counting from the van, the Intrepid (64), had her fore-topmast shot away, flew up into the wind, and came aback, stopping and doubling up the rear of the line.

The situation of the Intrepid (64) obliged Admiral Byng and all his division to fall aback, leaving the French centre unattacked and the British rear division quite uncovered. Byng ordered the Chesterfield (44) to lay by the Intrepid (64) and the Deptford (60) to replace the Intrepid (64) in the line of battle.

The French seized this opportunity to bear down on West's Division with the van of their fleet. The French declined to come to close engagement preferring to destroy the rigging of the British ships at a distance. The engagement then degenerated into sporadic cannonades between ships. Meanwhile, Byng was lying a considerable distance astern from his rear.

At 6:00 p.m., the British fleet retired eastwards. De la Galissonière had been formally instructed to refrain from any pursuit in order to blockade the harbour.

During the night, the Intrepid (64) and Chesterfield (44) parted from the fleet.

Outcome

The losses in killed and wounded were nearly equal (British lost 43 killed and 168 wounded; French, 38 killed and 115 wounded); but the French lost no officers of rank, whereas in Byng's fleet Captain Andrews, of the Defiance (60), was killed, and Captain Noel, of the Princess Louisa (60), was mortally wounded. The British ships also suffered much more than the French in their masts, yards and rigging.

At daylight on May 21, the two fleets were out of sight of each other. Byng sent cruisers to localize the Intrepid (64) and Chesterfield (44).

On May 22, the Intrepid (64) and the Chesterfield (44) joined back Byng's squadron.

On May 24, Byng held a council of war on board the Ramillies (90). Considering that the fleet could not relieve Minorca and that Gibraltar would be in great danger if anything happened to the fleet, the council unanimously resolved to proceed to Gibraltar.

On May 25, Byng set sail for Gibraltar. On the way, the squadron occupied itself in repairing such damages as could be repaired at sea. By withdrawing to Gibraltar, Byng virtually condemned the British garrison of Fort St. Philip who finally surrendered on June 28 with the honours of war.

In the latter part of May, Commodore Broderick had been sent from Great Britain to the Mediterranean with 5 ships of the line to reinforce Byng’s fleet. His squadron consisted of:

At the end of May, news of Byng’s failure reached Great Britain. Sir Edward Hawke and Rear-Admiral Charles Saunders were immediately ordered to embark for Gibraltar.

On June 15, Broderick's small force arrived at Gibraltar.

On June 16, Hawke and Saunders left Portsmouth on board the Antelope (54) and proceeded to Gibraltar.

On June 19, Byng's squadron arrived at Gibraltar. The admiral at once began preparations to return to Minorca.

On July 3, Hawke and Saunders arrived at Gibraltar on board the Antelope (54) while Byng was still engaged in preparations to return to Minorca. Hawke immediately assumed command of the British fleet.

On July 9, the Antelope (54) sailed from Gibraltar with Admiral Byng and Rear-Admiral West on board.

Soon after his arrival at Gibraltar, Sir Edward Hawke, sailed with the fleet to Minorca, but found that the island had fallen, and that the French army and fleet had returned to Toulon. The enemy had no longer any squadron at sea in the Mediterranean, and the vice-admiral therefore had to confine himself to protecting British trade and preserving British prestige.

On July 26, the Antelope (54) arrived at Portsmouth after a short trip. Byng was immediately put under arrest for his conduct during the encounter of May 20.

On August 19, Byng was landed and sent to Greenwich. There he remained in confinement until December 23, when he was removed to Portsmouth.

On December 3, Hawke set out with part of his fleet for home, leaving Rear-Admiral Charles Saunders in command in the Mediterranean.

On December 27, Byng's trial began on board the St. George (96) in Portsmouth harbour, and continued until January 27 1757. On that day sentence was pronounced, and the admiral was transferred to the Monarch (74), then in harbour.

On March 14 1757, Byng was executed at Portsmouth, aboard Monarch (74).

A few years later, on August 10 1760, Lieutenant-General Fowke, who had refused assistance to Admiral Byng when he requested reinforcements for his attempt to relieve Minorca, was court martialed and dismissed from service.

Map

Reconstruction based on the maps of William Laird Clowes in his book "The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present", vol. III

Order of Battle

British Order of Battle

Commander-in-Chief: Admiral Byng

French Order of Battle

Commander-in-Chief: Admiral de la Galissonière

References

This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous: A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761
  • Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 146-160
  • Fortescue J. W.: A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 291-295
  • Pajol, Charles P. V.: Les Guerres sous Louis XV, vol. VI, Paris, 1891, pp. 3-19

Other sources:

Castex, Jean-Claude: Dictionnaire des batailles terrestres franco-anglaises de la Guerre de Sept Ans, Presse de l'université Laval, Québec: 2006, pp. 438-443

Terrón Ponce, José L.: La expedición a Menorca del mariscal de Richelieu en 1756, Nec Pluribus Impar