At dawn on the 14th December 1798, the Royal Navy frigate Ambuscade 32, was patrolling the estuary of the River Gironde on the west coast of France. As grey light spread across the sea, they spotted the sails of another ship coming from the west. The Ambuscade approached to investigate, at which point the unidentified ship, which was the French corvette Bayonnaise 24, turned-tail and ran.
This was a perfectly reasonable response. The French ship was only armed with 8 pounder guns, as oppose to the more numerous 12 pounder cannon of the Ambuscade. Even though she was carrying a detachment of 40 soldiers, in addition to her normal crew, her opponent was both larger and faster. Prudence, after all, is the greater part of valour. The British frigate gave chase, and thanks to her superior speed, began to close with the Bayonnaise. By noon, the ships were in range of each other and battle commenced.
For the first hour, the two sides circled around each other exchanging broadsides, with the Ambuscade attempting to close the range, and her smaller opponent trying to keep clear. With both fewer and smaller guns, the Bayonnaise suffered much more damage and loss of life than her opponent. Towards the end of this first hour she found herself decisively out-manoeuvred, with the British frigate about to pass across her stern and rake her. In Age of Sail battles, this was normally a crippling blow. Cannon balls fired in this way would enter the poorly protected stern of a ship and tear down its whole length. Things were looking grim for the Bayonnaise.
And then her fortune began to change. One of the Ambuscade’s cannons burst, killing thirteen of her crew outright, wounding many more, and badly damaging the frigate. In the confusion that followed, the Bayonnaise was able to escape to the south. The Ambuscade managed to restore the situation on board, and set off in pursuit. By 3 pm she was alongside the French ship, and firing into her once more. Unable to either run or outfight her opponent, the Bayonnaise tried a desperate manoeuvre. She turned hard to port and rammed the Ambuscade.
This move caught the British ship completely by surprise. The bowsprit of the Bayonnaise crashed into the Ambuscade's damaged mizzen mast, bringing it down, wounding more of her crew, and hopelessly entangling the two ships. Some of the British ship’s afterguard had been sent below to help fight a small powder fire on the gun deck, leaving her quarterdeck dangerously empty of crew. Things began to move in the French ship’s favour. From her forecastle, her marines, together with the contingent of soldiers she carried, began firing muskets from short range down onto the Ambuscade’s deck. They far outnumbered the frigate’s few Royal Marines, and were ordered to concentrate on shooting their opponent’s officers.
Her first lieutenant was quickly hit in the groin, and taken bellow. Moments later Captain Henry Jenkins was badly wounded, and followed him down to the surgeon. Lieutenant Sinclair, who commanded the Ambuscade’s marines, was next, about the same time as her sailing master was shot in the head. Meanwhile the crew of the Bayonnaise had all been gathered together and armed. In a cheering wave, they boarded their Royal Navy opponent, using the bowsprit as a bridge. After a brief, savage fight, the ship’s last uninjured officer, her purser William Murray, surrendered the frigate.
The triumphant French took over the Ambuscade, and used her to tow the crippled Bayonnaise into Rochefort, where they arrived in triumph the following day. French victories over larger Royal Navy opponents were unprecedented at the time, and much was made of this rare propaganda coup by the Paris government. Lieutenant de Vaisseau Richer, the Bayonnaise’s wounded commander, was promoted to Capitaine de Vaisseau, a jump of three ranks. All the other surviving officers were promoted too, and a series of paintings were commissioned celebrating the notable feat.
As for the Ambuscade’s Captain Henry Jenkins he was exchanged the following year, returned to Britain, were he faced a Courts Marshal for the loss of his ship. He was still crippled by his injuries and would never walk again. Being forced to give evidence from a stretcher was widely seen as having saved him from a guilty verdict. He never commanded a ship again.