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‘Warm Work’ – the fight between the Quebec and the Surveillante

In June 1779, the Royal Navy frigate Quebec (32) was patrolling off the coast of Brittany when she encountered a small convoy of French coasters bringing supplies for the main French fleet in Brest. Her captain, George Farmer was an aggressive fighting captain who a teenage Nelson had once served under as midshipman. He immediately attacked the convoy, capturing a number of the coasters, and driving the others onto the rocky coast. While chasing one of the merchant ships his frigate ran aground on a reef, and only managed to float free by throwing most of her stores and all her twelve-pounder cannon over the side. Farmer then returned to Portsmouth for repairs and to rearm his ship. Unfortunately there weren’t enough twelve-pounder cannon available, and the Quebec was rushed back to sea with a main-battery of smaller nine-pounder guns instead.

On the 6th October the Quebec was cruising off the island of Ushant at daybreak when a French frigate was spotted. She was the Surveillante, another 32-gun frigate under the command of Charles Du Couëdic de Kergoualer. Both commanders immediately cleared their ships for action and prepared to give battle. It was a clear, autumn day, with only a light wind pushing the antagonists towards each other. By mid-morning the ships were in range, and the battle started.

For the first hour of the action the frigates sailed on the same tack, broadside to broadside,. Farmer edged the Quebec as close as possible, where his smaller cannon would be at less of a disadvantage over the twelve pounders guns carried by the Surveillante. As a result the battle was fought at murderously close range. The casualties on both sides mounted steadily, including both captains. Du Couëdic was wounded in the head by a glancing blow from a musket ball, Farmer had his collar bone broken by falling debris, but neither man opted to leave the deck to have his wounds seen too. ‘My lads, this is warm work,’ Farmer is reported as telling his men, as his shoulder was bandaged up. ‘Keep up your fire with double spirit. We will conquer or die.’

At the end of the first hour, Farmer realised his ship was losing the duel, and attempted to make the Quebec fall back so that he could turn across the French ship’s stern. Du Couëdic spotted what he was doing, and countered the manoeuvre, and the remorseless fight went on. By noon both ships where in a dreadful state, both riddled with shot holes and with their rigging cut to pieces. All the Quebec’s officers were killed or wounded, as were much of the crew. Then one of the Surveillante’s masts fell, triggering the collapse of the other two badly damaged ones, but before Farmer could take any advantage of his opponent’s predicament, the Quebec’s own damaged masts came down.

Both ships were little more than uncontrollable hulks, but still the fight still went on. The gun crews of the Quebec carried on firing through the masses of sails and wreckage drooped over the side, while their target turned in the light air until her bowsprit crashed into the British frigate, at which point the Du Couëdic decided to try and board the Royal Navy ship using the bowsprit as a bridge. But before this bold plan could be executed events took a different turn.

The gun flashes from the Quebec’s cannon had set fire to the sails hanging down in front of them, and flames quickly spread to the wrecked masts and tar-soaked rigging that still covered the frigate’s deck. The exhausted survivors onboard where too few to control the blaze, which quickly took hold. It even jumped across to the bowsprit of the Surveillante, whose boarders now dropped their weapons and began frantically trying to push their ship clear of the doomed Quebec. British survivors now began jumping from the blazing frigate, desperate to avoid the flames. Du Couëdic ordered the French ship’s boats launched to try and rescue the survivors, but all of them had been destroyed in the fight, so that the best that his crew could do was to throw ropes towards those in the water. In this way 68 of the Quebec’s crew of almost 200 were rescued. Captain Farmer was not amongst them, and a short while later the stricken frigate blew up when the fire reached her magazine.

The Surveillante suffered 115 casualties, more than half of her crew of 211, and her badly battered hull had to be towed back into Brest harbour. Du Couëdic, was promoted for his actions, but died a few months later from the head wounds he had suffered in the battle. The Quebec‘s survivors where immediately released by the French and returned home, because the French government “did not think it right to consider as prisoners of war unfortunate men who had escaped the fight, the fire which blew up their ship, and the watery gulf into which they had been hurled.”

My blog will be off on its summer break now - returning in the Autumn


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