Clash in the Gut – the First and Second Battles of Algeciras
The British naval base at Gibraltar lies on one side of a small bay, directly opposite its Spanish equivalent at Algeciras. Both were established for the same strategic reason - to dominate the Gut, the narrow strip of sea between Europe and Africa and the only place where shipping could travel between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic before the construction of the Suez Canal. In the 18th century the batteries of guns protecting them were just outside long cannon shot of each other, which was just as well, because Spain and Britain were frequently at war.
At the Battle of the Nile, in 1798, Nelson largely destroyed the French Mediterranean fleet, effectively cutting off their army in Egypt. By 1801, the situation was getting desperate for the beleaguered troops, with supplies running low and a British invasion force gathering in the Eastern Mediterranean. In a last bid to bring relief to the men he had abandoned, Napoleon sent Rear-Admiral Charles Linois with a squadron of three ships of the line to break out of the Mediterranean and rendezvous with a Franco/Spanish force in Cadiz. The combined fleet would then fight their way back into the Mediterranean and sail to Egypt with reinforcements and much needed supplies for the army. But this plan meant passing through the Gut and by Gibraltar. Twice.
All went well initially. Linois sailed along the coast of Spain, avoiding the more powerful elements of the Mediterranean fleet and capturing the little armed brig HMS Speedy, with the newly promoted Commander Lord Thomas Cochrane on board. But once he approached Gibraltar, things began to go wrong. From Cochrane he learnt of a squadron of seven Royal Navy ships of the line under Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez who were blockading Cadiz. As he entered the Gut he saw a small sloop-of-war, HMS Calpe leave Gibraltar and head west with all sail set. He correctly deduced that this ship was bringing word of his arrival to Saumarez. Rather than take on odds of over two to one in the open sea he decided instead to moor his ships in a strong position covered by the numerous guns of Algeciras and await battle. The following day at dawn, Saumarez arrived from Cadiz with six of his ships - the seventh, HMS Superb was detached at the time. Large crowds gathered on both sides of the bay in the hope of a naval battle, and ready to cheer on their side like spectators at a boxing match.
What became known as the First battle of Algeciras was a brutal affair. Ignoring Nelson’s dictum that “a ship's a fool to fight a fort,” Saumarez immediately attacked his well-protected enemy. Although the French were outnumbered, they were supported by well emplaced Spanish shore batteries which the British could do little about. I addition Linois had the help of numerous small Spanish gunboats that could manoeuvre in the shallow parts of the bay, where the Royal Navy’s bigger ships couldn’t go. To make matters worse, as soon as the first of Saumarez’s ships were engaged, the wind dropped to almost nothing, leaving many of them becalmed. After several hours of pounding, he ordered one of his ships, HMS Hannibal, to manoeuvre around the stern of the French line and rake it. Unfortunately, the Hannibal ran aground in a position with her bow pointing towards a Spanish battery. The helpless ship was then subject to a steady but remorseless fire from the shore that she was unable to return. After several attempts to pull her off, and after losing most of her masts and a third of her crew, she surrendered. Shortly afterwards Saumarez ordered his battered ships to retreat to Gibraltar.
Although the ships on both sides had been severely damaged and casualties were broadly similar (the Royal Navy’s slightly less), the loss of HMS Hannibal meant that this first round had undoubtedly gone to the Franco/Spanish side. Over the next few days, both in Gibraltar and in Algeciras a frantic race followed with both fleets trying to get their battered ships ready for the next round of the action, while anxiously looking across the bay at the efforts of their opponents. Meanwhile Linois sent an appeal overland to Cadiz, asking for a sortie of the ships there to come and escort him to safety.
Three days later, the reinforcements from Cadiz arrived in the form of five ships of the line, including the two huge Spanish first rates, the 112 gunners Real Carlos and San Hermenegildo, all under the command of Vice-Admiral Juan Joaquin de Moreno. They were followed closely by HMS Superb, Sumarez’s other ship of the line, which was shadowing the enemy squadron. The rest of the day was spent with both sides making final repairs to their ships before weighing anchor in the early evening. The Franco/Spanish fleet now had eight ship’s of the line, as well as the refloated Hannibal, which was being towed by a frigate, while Sumarez had six. The night that followed was the strangest part of the whole battle.
As darkness fell, the Franco/Spanish ships disappeared into the twilight, heading for Cadiz as swiftly as they could. Saumarez’s battered ships were struggling to close the range, but the Royal Navy side had one trick up their sleeve. HMS Superb was not only undamaged, having avoided the first battle, but was known to be exceptionally fast. She was detached with orders to close with the enemy and attack their stern most ships. At about midnight the Superb was several miles ahead of the rest of the British squadron, and closing in on the Real Carlos. She fired three quick broadsides into the Spanish ship from close range, bringing down part of her foremast, before vanishing into the night again.
The result on the enemy was utter confusion. The other Spanish 112 gunner, the San Hermenegildo came up next to the Real Carlos and fired into her, mistaking her for HMS Superb. The Real Carlos, convinced that she had found her attacker, returned fire. As both ships hammered away at each other, the Superb closed in on a fresh victim, the French seventy-four Saint-Antoine, which she fought to a standstill and captured. Meanwhile the Real Carlos had caught fire, and fell onboard the San Hermenegildo while out of control, allowing the fire to spread to her fellow Spanish first rate. In both ships the fire took hold, and despite the valiant attempts of their crews to save them, both subsequently blew up with enormous loss of life. The final part of the action was a clash between Linois’s flagship, the 80-gun Formidable and the Royal Navy seventy-four HMS Venerable, which the French ship had the better of. Linois was then able to make good his escape before the rest of Samuarez’s ships came up.
The following day saw Admirals Linois and de Moreno safe back in Cadiz with their surviving ships, along with the captured Hannibal and Saumarez’s squadron outside once more blockading them with his remaining ships. They never succeeded in breaking out to rescue the doomed French army in Egypt, which surrendered in September to the British.