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Battle of Les Sables-d'Olonne
Part of the Napoleonic Wars
Battle of Les Sables d'Olonne img 3189.jpg
Date 23 February 1809
Location Les Sables-d'Olonne, France
Result Indecisive
Belligerents
France France United Kingdom United Kingdom
Commanders
France Pierre Roch Jurien de La Gravière United Kingdom Robert Stopford
Strength
Italienne (40)

Calypso (40)
Cybèle (40)

Coastal forts

HMS Caesar (80)

HMS Defiance (74)
HMS Donegal (74)
HMS Amelia (38)
HMS Dotterel (18)

Casualties and losses
64 killed and 47 wounded

The Battle of Les Sables-d'Olonne was a limited frigate action that took place on 23 February 1809 off Les Sables-d'Olonne. A powerful French frigate squadron, comprising Calypso (40), Cybèle (40) and Italienne (40) was engaged by three ships of the line of the British squadron blockading the harbours of the Atlantic coast, and managed to repel their assault at the cost of irreparable damage leading to the subsequent decommissioning of all frigates involved.

Contents

Background

In February 1809, two British squadrons, each counting four ships of the line and several frigates, blockaded Lorient and Île d'Aix. A strong frigate squadron was thus trapped in Lorient; it was commanded by captain Amable Troude, and comprised the heavy 40-gun frigates Cybèle, Italienne and Calypso.

The French conceived a plan by which a squadron from Brest, under rear Admiral Willaumez, would sail to Lorient, engage the blockading ships and distract them while Troude's squadron would set sail and make its junction with Willaumez' forces.

Willaumez' departed Brest on 21 February 1809, leading an 8-ship of the line and 2-frigate squadron, and arriving off Lorient at nightfall. However, calms prevented the Lorient squadron from weighing anchor, and the Brest squadron had left when Cybèle, Italienne and Calypso finally left harbour, under captain de La Gravière. They headed towards Rochefort in the hope of making their junction with Willaumez' squadron.

Action

On 23 February, the frigate squadron arrived at near Belle Île. The frigate HMS Amelia (38) and the brig-sloop HMS Dotterel (18) spotted the squadron and shadowed it.[1] A few hours later, Calypso spotted five ships and a frigate heading to Lorient. The chase went on all night. The next morning, as the frigates arrived off Tour de la Baleine on the Île de Ré, the British ships were so close that they started manoeuvering to pass the stern of Cybèle. The French then challenged Amelia and Dotterel, which failed to answer their signals, and Italienne hauled up to support Cybèle. La Gravière then decided to seek refuge at Les Sables-d'Olonne, under the protection of coastal defences, before larger British forces could gather.

The French arrived at Les Sables-d'Olonne at 9:15 and made anchor in shallow waters. A quarter of an hour later, the British arrived, Amelia and Dotterel having joined with HMS Caesar (80), HMS Defiance (74) and HMS Donegal (74), under Admiral Robert Stopford. In spite of the shallow waters, Defiance was able to anchor within half a mile of the French frigates, on the right of Italienne, whilst HMS Donegal and HMS Caesar had to anchor further out because of their deeper draughts.

A furious artillery exchange broke out, in which all ships suffered considerable damage. Italienne and Cybèle had their cables cut and caught fire, while Calypso was beached. Three hours into the fight, Defiance, whose manoeuvers were hampered by the high reefs, had found herself stranded in an unfavourable position and exposed to French fire for so long that she had to retreat, her stern entirely destroyed. Caesar and Donegal sustained damage to a lesser extent from the frigates and the coastal forts. Amelia had her bowsprit shot through and she was holed in several places but had no casualties.

An hour and a half afterwards, descending tides made the waters too shallow for the British ships, and they had to break off. Jurien de la Gravière's squadron then entered the harbour of Les Sables d'Olonne, with 64 killed and 47 wounded, his ships badly battered.

Aftermath

The battle was presented as a victory on the French side, as three 40-gun frigates had survived, forcing away a 80-gun and two 74s. The British usually mention the action as "a heavy bombardment the French ships were driven on shore and were subsequently wrecked"[2].

In effect, the frigates did survive, but were in such a battered state that Cybèle was declared irreparable and broken up, while Italienne and Calypso were declared inapt for navy duty, and sold to commerce.

Order of battle

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French squadron

Commodore Jurien de la Gravière's squadron
Ship Guns Commander Notes
Italienne 40 Commodore Jurien de la Gravière Too battered to serve in the Navy, sold to commerce
Cybèle 40 Captain Cocault Irreparably damaged, broken up
Calypso 40 Too battered to serve in the Navy, sold to commerce

British squadron

Admiral Robert Stopford's squadron
Ship Guns Commander Notes
HMS Caesar 80
HMS Defiance 74 Captain Henry Hotham Stern damaged
HMS Donegal 74 Pulteney Malcom one man killed and six wounded
Attached ships
Ship Guns Commander Notes
HMS Amelia 38 Frederick Paul Irby Bowsprit shot through, hulled in several places; no casualties.
HMS Dotterel 18

Reference and sources

  1. ^ HMS Dotterel Naval Database
  2. ^ HMS Caesar, Naval Database


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