By 1759, it was clear that France was losing the Seven Years War. From the jungles of India to the forests of North America, French forces were in steady retreat from Britain and her allies. What was required was a bold plan to turn the war around. The British Army was much smaller than that of France, and most of it was fighting overseas. In Paris the Duc de Choiseul argued that the enemy was over-stretched and poorly protected against the threat of invasion. A force of forty thousand French troops were gathered around Calais, ready for the short journey across the straits of Dover. Meanwhile a second army was assembled in Quiberon Bay, a roadstead in southern Brittany, to invade Scotland.
All that was required for the success of the plan was for the main French fleet in Brest, under Admiral De Conflan, to breakout into the Atlantic and gain temporary control of the sea around Britain. But there was a problem. Waiting outside the naval base was the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke. Month after month, through the summer of 1759 and into the autumn, his fleet remained at sea just below the horizon.
In November De Conflan’s chance came. The first gales of the winter blasted in from the open Atlantic, battering Hawke’s ships and driving them from their station. After five months guarding the approaches to Brest the Channel Fleet was forced to find shelter in Tor Bay, on the coast of Devon. The way was now open for the French to leave harbour. On the 14th of November the weather moderated a little and the wind changed direction. De Conflan’s ships set sail and headed south for Quibron Bay to pick up the French Army earmarked for the attack on Scotland. But the same improvement in the weather brought Hawke sailing back towards Brest, where he got news that the French were at sea.
The two fleets spotted each other just outside the approaches to Quiberon Bay. In spite of worsening weather and a heavy swell running, Hawke ordered his ships to chase the enemy. The Channel Fleet outnumbered the French, twenty seven ships to twenty one, and in the face of this attack, De Conflan withdrew towards the bay. He was confident that the reefs, rocks and islands that surround Quiberon would deter the British from following, especially as the weather was getting steadily worse.
Hawke’s sailing master was equally alarmed by the navigational hazards all around them, and warned the admiral. But the British commander in chief was more sanguine, telling the navigator that “Where there is passage for the enemy, there is passage for me.” His decision was extraordinarily brave (or foolish). A storm was now blowing, it would soon be dark and they were approaching a dangerous coast that was largely unknown to his captains. Nevertheless he ordered his ships to press on, and a pell-mell battle began.
The possibility that the British would simply ignore the conditions does not seem to have occurred to De Conflan, and as a result his ships were poorly deployed to fight. The enemy was soon in amongst the rear of his fleet, and causing havoc. The Formidable was mauled by each British ship as they past her, and by 4.00pm had surrendered with over two hundred casualties onboard. This fate was shared by the Heros who had turned back to help her stricken consort. Two French ships, the Thesée and Superbe tried to open their lower gun ports to resist the British onslaught, in spite of the weather. Both foundered and sunk when the raging sea poured in over the port sills, taking a thousand crewmen between them to the bottom. As it grew dark, with the storm still getting worse, the two sides anchored, and spent the night making hasty repairs to be ready for what the morning would bring.
Daylight revealed that not all had survived the night. Two ships, the damaged British Resolution and the captured French Heros had been driven onto the shore. More surprising was the discovery that De Conflan had moored his flagship, the Soleil Royal, in the middle of the British fleet. She tried to escape, but was also driven ashore and wrecked, as was the British Essex which chased her. Leaderless, the remaining French ships began to scatter. The eight ships of the line that could escape to the south made for the French Naval base at Rochefort and safety. But the remainder of the fleet were trapped, and took refuge deep in the estuary of the River Vilaine. While this allowed them to evade Hawke’s ships, many became grounded in the shallow waters. Some ships took up to a year to refloat, and two ships never left the estuary at all.
Hawke returned home a hero. His victory inspired the writing of the song Hearts of Oak, which remains the anthem of the Royal Navy to this day. But the strongest legacy of the battle was the message that it sent to the next generation of British admirals. They learnt that boldness and aggression was the way to win sea battles. Leaders like Howe, Rodney, St Vincent and Nelson took this message to heart.