The Guillaume Tell (80) was one of the magnificent ships built in Toulon by Jacques-Noel Sané during the 1790s. She fought at Nelson’s victory at the battle of the Nile in 1798, but had the good fortune to be stationed towards the end of the French line, and was able to escape from the disastrous battle that virtually destroyed France’s Mediterranean fleet. She fled to Valletta in Malta, which was then under French control and became trapped there when a Royal Navy squadron arrived to blockade the island. Soon a small British army was landed, and they laid siege to Valletta. By February 1800 the situation was desperate. A relieving force sent from France had been intercepted at sea and the garrison was running desperately low on supplies. To avoid capture, and to remove the burden of having to feed her large crew, the Guillaume Tell left her moorings during the darkest part of the night of the 30th of March 1800, and headed out to sea. With luck, concluded Denis Decrès, her commander, she might slip past the British blockade unnoticed and escape.
Just before midnight, a lookout onboard the British frigate Penelope (36) spotted the big French ship, and sent a brig stationed nearby, the Minorca, to warn the rest of the squadron. As this point all was not lost for the Guillaume Tell. Sané-designed ships were good sailers, and in a stern chase there was a good chance she would be able to outrun any Royal Navy ships of the line. Of course, there was still the Penelope, but what could a ship as small as a frigate do to stop a huge two-decker?
Unfortunately for the French, their opponent was commanded by Captain Henry Blackwood, an Ulsterman and one of the Royal Navy’s ablest commanders. Realising the danger of the enemy escaping, he decided to slow the Guillaume Tell down to a point where she could be overhauled by the squadron’s larger ships. He could not risk a side-to-side fight with his much larger opponent – a few broadsides from her 36 pounders would quickly reduce the little Penelope to a wreck. Instead he circled around her in the dark, and like a terrier snapping at the heels of a bull, he closed in on her vulnerable stern, where she only had two small chase guns mounted.
The night that followed was one of constant manoeuvre for Blackwood and his crew. It took half an hour of hard sailing to bring the fleeing French ship into range, after which the frigate began to steadily bombard her opponent. By repeatedly crossing her enemy’s stern, Blackwood was able to rake the Frenchman – with his broadsides passing along the whole length of the enemy’s hull. The Guillaume Tell responded with her stern-chasers, but these could do little to damage the frigate.
Decrès was caught in a dilemma. In the moonlight behind the Penelope he could see the sails of the other pursuing British ships. If he turned around, he might be able to catch and defeat the annoying little frigate, but he saw she was being handled very competently. Her captain might well use his superior speed to sheer away and decline to fight him. Meanwhile the Guillaume Tell would have sacrificed valuable distance in the race to stay clear of the rest of the squadron. He decided to set all sail and try and outrun his enemies. As he sailed on into the night, the Penelope continued to crisscross his stern, now concentrating her fire on the French ship’s rigging.
By dawn Malta was just a smudge on the horizon, and the Guillaume Tell was in trouble. The French ship had lost both her main and mizzen topmasts, which had considerably reduced her speed. There was now no prospect of her being able to outmanoeuvre Blackwood’s frigate, even if Decrès wanted to try. Worse still, the 64-gun Lion under Captain Dixon had almost caught up with her, with Sir Edward Berry in the Foudroyant (74) not far behind. Onboard the French ship her crew prepared to go down fighting.
Dixon in the Lion drew up to the Guillaume Tell and fired a broadside into her port quarter. Going ahead of the now sluggish 80-gunner, she crossed her bows and shot away her jib boom. Decrès was now being raked from in front, while Penelope did the same from the stern. Lion then became entangled with the Guillaume Tell's rigging, and fetched up alongside the French ship’s portside. The Lion was a much smaller ship, with less than half the weight of broadside of the big 80-gunner, and French firepower soon started to tell. But Decrès was aware that the Lion would soon be reinforced, so he tried to defeat his opponent quickly. Twice the French attempted to board their opponent. After a period of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, they were repelled.
Half an hour later, the battle reached its final stage, when the Foudroyant arrived on the Guillaume Tell’s disengaged starboard side. Berry, her captain, hailed Decrés and invited him to surrender, but he refused to do so. The battle went on for a further hour, with the Guillaume Tell only yielding when she was completely dismasted. Damage and casualties were high for the two sides, with both Berry and Decrés being wounded. French casualties were well over two hundred, and the British lost a hundred and thirty, mainly split between the Lion and the Foudroyant. The wily Penelope only had one killed and three injured, and was sufficiently undamaged to take the Guillaume Tell in tow at the end of the action.
Decrés recovered from his wounds and was soon exchanged. He returned to France, where he was fêted as a hero. On the British side the role Blackwood and the Penelope had played was not overlooked. The Ulsterman became a particular favourite of Nelson’s, and commanded his frigate squadron at Trafalgar. As for the Guillaume Tell, she was renamed HMS Malta, and served as a Royal Navy ship for another thirty years.