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Battle of Minorca
Part of the Seven Years' War
Date 20 May 1756
Location Mediterranean Sea, near Minorca, present-day Spain
Result Indecisive. French strategic victory[1][2]
Belligerents
Flag of Royalist France.svg France United Kingdom Great Britain
Commanders
Flag of Royalist France.svg Marquis de la Galissonnière John Byng
Strength
12 ships of the line
5 frigates
12 ships of the line
7 frigates
Casualties and losses
38 killed
184 wounded
Half the fleet damaged
45 killed
162 wounded

The Battle of Minorca (20 May 1756) was a naval battle between French and British fleets. It was the opening sea battle of the Seven Years' War in the European theatre. Shortly after Great Britain declared war on the House of Bourbon, their squadrons met off the Mediterranean island of Minorca. Although the fight was indecisive, and the French broke off battle first, the decision by the British to withdraw to Gibraltar handed France a strategic victory and led directly to the Fall of Minorca.

The British failure to save Minorca led to the controversial court-martial and execution of the British commander, Admiral John Byng, for "failure to do his utmost" to relieve the siege of the British garrison on Minorca.

Contents

Background

The French had been menacing the British-held garrison on Minorca, which had come under British control during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1708. Great Britain and France had commenced hostilities in the New World colonies earlier in 1754 (the French and Indian War), and at this point the conflict was not going well for Great Britain. The government was anxious to protect her presence closer to home, and was concerned that the French might even be planning to invade Great Britain themselves (as France had done in previous wars by supporting the Jacobite pretenders).

The long-expected French move on Minorca finally caused the British government to act, albeit too belatedly, and a squadron of 10 ships of the line was dispatched from Gibraltar to its defence, under the command of John Byng (then a Vice-Admiral, but quickly promoted to Admiral for the purpose). Despite having considerable intelligence of the strength of the French fleet at Toulon that was designated for the invasion of Minorca, the ships allocated to Byng were all in a poor state of repair and undermanned.

Prelude

When Byng and his fleet, reinforced by ships of the Minorca squadron that had escaped the island, arrived off Minorca on May 19, they found the island already overrun by French troops, with only the garrison of Fort St. Philip (Port Mahon) holding out. Byng's orders were to relieve the garrison, but a French squadron of 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates intervened as the afternoon was wearing on. The two fleets positioned themselves, and battle was drawn up on the morning of the following day.

Battle

Facing 12 French ships of the line, Byng formed his 12 largest ships into a single line of battle and approached the head of the French line on a parallel course while maintaining the weather gage. He then ordered his ships to go about and come alongside their opposite numbers in the French fleet. However, the poor signalling capability of the times caused confusion and delay in closing. The British van took a considerable pounding from their more heavily armed French adversaries, while the rear of the line, including Byng's flagship, failed to come within effective cannon range. During the battle Byng displayed considerable caution and an over-reliance on standard fighting procedures, and several of his ships were seriously damaged, although no ships were lost on either side. Following a Council of War, at which all the senior officers present concurred, it was agreed the fleet stood no chance of further damaging the French ships or of relieving the garrison. Byng therefore gave orders to return to Gibraltar.

Aftermath

The battle could be considered a draw, but Byng's actions in failing to press on to relieve the garrison or pursue the French fleet resulted in severe criticism. The Admiralty, perhaps concerned to cover for its own poor preparation for the disastrous venture, charged Byng for breaching the Articles of War by failing to do all he could to fulfill his orders and support the garrison. Byng was court-martialled, found guilty and sentenced to be shot. The sentence was carried out on 14 March 1757 on the battleship Monarch in Portsmouth harbor.

Byng's execution is referred to in Voltaire's novel Candide with the line "Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres." ("In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to give courage to the others.")

Despite William Pitt's eagerness to regain the island, a British expedition was not sent to recapture it for the remainder of the war. It was eventually returned to Britain following the Treaty of Paris, in exchange for the French West Indies and Belle-Île.

Order of battle

Great Britain (Adm John Byng)

In order of their place in the line of battle:

  1. Defiance 60
  2. Portland 50
  3. Lancaster 66
  4. Buckingham 68/70 (flag 2, RAdm Temple West)
  5. Captain 64
  6. Intrepid 64
  7. Revenge 64
  8. Princess Louisa 60
  9. Trident 64
  10. Ramillies 90 (flag 1)
  11. Culloden 74
  12. Kingston 60

and 6 others including Deptford 48/50 and Dolphin 22

France (Marquis de la Galissonnière)
  1. Orphée 64
  2. Hippopotame 50
  3. Redoutable 74
  4. Sage 64 (Durevest)
  5. Guerrier 74
  6. Fier 50 (d'Herville)
  7. Foudroyant 80 (flag)
  8. Téméraire 74
  9. Content 64
  10. Lion 64
  11. Couronne 74
  12. Triton 64 (Mercier)

and 5 frigates

See also

  • Arthur Phillip, a participant in the battle on the British side he was an eighteen-year-old Midshipman. He would later lead the First Fleet which in 1787 sailed for Botany Bay, Australia where in 1788 he nearby established the continent's first European settlement and penal colony of Sydney.

References

  1. ^ Dull p.52-54
  2. ^ Lambert p.143

Bibliography

  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. Faber and Faber, 2000.
  • Brown, Peter Douglas. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham: The Great Commoner. George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
  • Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and the Seven Years' War. University of Nebraska, 2005.
  • Lambert, Andrew. Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great. Faber and Faber, 2009.

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