Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius whose downfall came from two catastrophic errors of judgement. One, his decision to invade Russia in 1812, has been widely studied. But just as significant was his earlier decision in 1808 to depose the Spanish Royal Family and replace them with his brother Joseph. At a stroke he converted a willing Spanish ally into an implacable enemy. It triggered a savage and bitter war of resistance in the Iberian Peninsula that would sap away at French strength for years afterwards. It also provided Britain with a theatre where her army could fight the French on ground that played to her strengths. Apart from at the Pyrenees, Spain and Portugal are surrounded by sea, and the sea was controlled by the Royal Navy.
An example of how sea power would play a vital role in the new conflict came early in the fighting. Surprised by the furious Spanish reaction to his coupe d’état, Napoleon found that he was going to have to occupy and subdue the country with French troops. To this end a number of powerful columns of were sent over the border into Spain. One, under the command of General Merle, was ordered to march on the strategically important port of Santander on the north coast. As the distance between France and Santander was under a hundred and fifty miles by road, the French commander was confident of securing his objective, but he was about to discover an important truth. With any sort of wind, ships sail faster than soldiers march.
Two small British warships, the 22 gun Cossack and 18 gun Comet had also been sent to Santander. The area had erupted into open revolt against the new French regime, and they had been ordered to take off any British civilians in the town. As Captain Digby, who was in command, approached the coast he learnt of the French plans, and made haste to get to the port first. As the sweating troops tramped along the coast road in the heat of a Spanish summer, the two ships glided serenely past them, to arrive at Santander on the afternoon of the 22nd of June 1808. The principle Spanish fortress displayed a white flag of truce towards the British ships, and a boat put out from the shore with a representative from the Spanish rebels. Captain Don Vincento Camino brought news that the French army had just reached a mountain pass a few miles away and that the situation in the port was chaotic, with some of the garrison wanting to fight the French, while others wanted to flee into the mountains to join the growing rebellion.
One thing was clear to Digby. There was a significant danger of the forts that protected Santander being captured intact by the French, and it was his duty to prevent this if he could. He agreed with Don Vincento that his ships would anchor in the bay, and that the Spanish garrison would not oppose the British if they wanted to disable the forts. Digby had very limited resources to hand. The compliments of his two ships combined was less than 300 men, of whom barely 60 were marines, but nevertheless he spent the night making plans for a landing the following dawn using his ships boats.
Captain Daly of the Comet led the expedition. He first occupied the Fort of Salvador de Ano, where he disabled all the guns there, and throw large amounts of military stores from the walls and into the sea. They then lit a long powder trail from the magazine, which held some 500 kegs of gunpowder, and hastily retreated. The resulting explosion destroyed much of the fortress, but also alerted the French to what was going on. Captain Daly then repeated the process at the nearby Fort Sedra, this time under considerable pressure from the advancing French. Again the magazine was blown, but using a much shorter fuse, to prevent the arriving French from putting it out. Testimony to how close run an affair it was can be found in Captain Digby’s report on the attack in which he wrote that “Captain Daly and Lieutenant Read of the Marines are much scorched, particularly Lieutenant Read, in setting Fire to the Train, but am happy to find his Eyes are safe, and he is doing well.” As the boats left the beach to return to their ships Digby reported, with satisfaction, that “a considerable Body of French Dragoons [i.e. cavalry] appeared...near the Smoking Ruins of the Magazine.” The French may have captured Santander, but it would be sometime before it would be of much value to them.
That two tiny ships could be responsible for such destruction, under the noses of the French army, was not lost on the navy. The war in Spain intensified in the years after 1808, with a large Anglo-Portuguese army under Wellington put into the field to help the Spanish in their fight with the French. The navy, too, would play their part, using larger ships to deliver more telling blows. Under enterprising commanders like Thomas Cochrane and Home Popham, squadrons followed in the wake of the Cossack and Comet. Like them, they used the benefits of sea power arrive unannounced from over the horizon, cause havoc, and then slip back out to sea, just as French reinforcements arrived.