The Ugly Duckling’s Last Stand
The sloop HMS Arrow was one of the least attractive commands in the Royal Navy. Along with her sister ship HMS Dart, she was built to an experimental design. It had been dreamt up by the noted engineer Sir Samuel Bentham, brother of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Although he had no experience in naval design, he was determined to re-imagine the warship. His two creations boasted slab sides, moving keels and pointed sterns that were almost the same shape as their bows. They were not a great success, and both vessels required considerable reconstruction to be made seaworthy at all. To complete the experimental nature of these ships they were armed exclusively with 32-pounder carronades. These were short range weapons that gave the Arrow a considerable punch but were largely useless beyond a few hundred yards.
Early in 1805 HMS Arrow was escorting a convoy of twenty-nine British merchant ships from Malta to Britain together with HMS Acheron, a much smaller warship of a type called a bomb vessel. Primarily designed for shore-bombardment, the Acheron only had eight guns that could be used in a sea-fight. They were a month into their voyage and had left the Mediterranean when they spotted two large ships overhauling them from astern. These proved to be a pair of powerful forty-gun French frigates, the Hortense and the Incorruptible. One such opponent would have been a challenge for the Arrow and Acheron to tackle, two represented suicidal odds. Commander Richard Vincent, the captain of the Arrow, was the senior naval officer present and he decided the only option was for the two Royal Navy ships to fight a delaying action, while the merchantmen they were protecting fled. He ordered the convoy to set all sail, and the Arrow and Acheron took up a position between them and the French frigates. His plan was a good one, under the circumstances. The convoy was not far from Gibraltar, in waters where other British warships operated, and one might appear at any time. For a day and a night, the chase continued, with the French steadily overhauling their opponents. By first light on the 4th of February, they had caught up with the convoy, and still no help had appeared.
The Hortense was now close to the Arrow, and her captain hailed his Royal Navy opponent, suggesting that Vincent should come onboard and surrender. Still hopeful that help might appear, the British commander was happy to take part in this exchange, and began to play for time. He replied that the idea had some merit, but he couldn’t possibly leave his ship in the face of an enemy. Perhaps the Hortense might send someone across to discuss any surrender further? All the while the convoy was sailing further away, making good their escape. Eventually the French captain lost patience and opened fire on the Arrow while the Incorruptible closed with the Acheron.
The battle was fought in light winds that gave the well-designed frigates a considerable advantage in speed and manoeuvrability. With little prospect of victory, the two Royal Navy ships did their best to keep the French engaged for as long as possible to give the merchant ships the best chance of escape. They were helped in this by the French deciding to keep the range long, where their cannons were much more effective than the British carronades. Although this tactic guaranteed an eventual French victory, it took them longer to defeat their opponents. As the larger ship, the Arrow did the bulk of the fighting. For an hour and twenty minutes she was in action, mainly with the Hortense. By the end of this bombardment, she was little more than a wreck. Her masts were too badly damaged to be used, her rudder was destroyed, four of her guns were out of action and water was flooding into her hull. With a third of his crew as casualties, and his ship sinking under him, Commander Vincent finally surrendered. The Acheron managed to fight on for another fifteen minutes before also striking her colours.
Boats from the Hortense took off the crew of the Arrow just in time as she settled deeper and deeper in the water. As the last sailor was rescued, the least attractive command in the Royal Navy rolled over and slipped beneath the surface of the Atlantic, having done her job. The Acheron was so badly damaged that once the French had taken off her crew, they set her on fire and left her to sink. French casualties were much lighter than British losses, thanks to fighting the battle at long range, but the time taken to defeat the British had allowed the convoy to disperse far and wide. As a result only the three slowest merchant ships were captured.
The Royal Navy crews were soon exchanged for French prisoners and within a few months they were back in Britain. Both commanders were tried for the loss of their ships, but were honourably acquitted, while Lloyds of London paid a reward to all the survivors to thank them for their sacrifice in preventing the capture of so many ships. As for Commander Vincent, he was promoted to post-captain and given a much more attractive ship to command. A swan, if you will, to replace the lost ugly duckling.