Quiberon Bay itself is a bay in southern Britanny on what is known as the Morbihan coast; it lies on the eastern side of the Quiberon Peninsula that juts outs of the coast into the Atlantic Ocean, roughly half way between the towns of Lorient and Vannes. Today it is a tourist destination but it was also the venue for a significant naval battle between France and Britain, fought during the Seven Years War (1756-63).
The year was 1759 and France and Great Britain were at war, British naval superiority was already threatening the lines of communication between France and its overseas colonies in Canada and the West Indies.
The French response was therefore simple; invade Britain and take them out. As part of the invasion plan, an army of 21,000 men had been gathered at Vannes in Britanny together with sufficient troop transports to carry them across the sea. All that was needed was for the French Atlantic fleet lying at Brest under the command of de Conflans, and the French Mediterranean fleet lying at Toulon under de la Clue, to make their way to the Morbihan coast and escort the transports to their destination.
Unfortunately for the French, the British knew all about the invasion plan, (a letter sent to the French ambassador in Sweden detailing the plan had been intercepted) and so the British government despatched Admiral Edward Hawke to blockade Brest and Admiral Edward Boscawen to similarly blockade Toulon in order to prevent the French fleets from putting to sea and combining to effect the invasion plan.
In the August of 1759, Boscawen had retired to to Gibraltar to provision and refit his squadron when de la Clue made a run for it and set off to join de Conflans at Brest. As soon as the British released the French had gone, and slipped past Gibraltar they gave chase. Five of the French ships managed to make it as far as Cadiz, but the other seven were caught on the 18th August. In a brief engagement Boscawen captured one French vessel, and whilst two managed to get away, of the other four, two were wrecked on the Portugese coast and two captured near Lagos (the British paying little heed to such matters as Portugese neutrality, although they did later apologise).
This was a severe blow to the French invasion plan, but despite the effective loss of their Mediterranean fleet the French government decided to persevere; de Conflans was ordered to make his way to Quiberon.
On the 9th November the British blockading squadron was forced back to Torbay by a severe gale; de Conflans took advantage of his absence and put to sea on the 14th, and sailed for Quiberon. The same day Hawke too left Torbay to return to Brest; the following day he discovered that the French had broken out. Correctly assuming that de Conflans was on his way to the Morbihan Hawke made haste to intercept him.
On the morning of the 20th of November, de Conflans was close to Quiberon when he came across the squadron of Commodore Duff stationed in Quiberon Bay itself. Faced with a vastly superior French force Duff just managed to get his four 50-gun ships out of the bay before being trapped by the French, who then gave chase.
Fortunately for Duff, before the French had a chance to catch him, Hawke's fleet hoved into view. De Conflans called off the pursuit and after first forming his line of battle decided, having seen the strength of the combined force before him and and that he was outnumbered twenty-seven to twenty-one, that it would br better to retreat to the safety of Quiberon Bay. With a storm brewing, de Conflans believed that the British fleet would not dare to follow him through the dangerous, narrow and rocky passage to the Bay, particularly as the British lacked the French advantage of the Breton pilots to guide the ships.
De Conflans was wrong; Hawke was prepared to take the risk. Dispensing with such niceties as a line of battle he ordered each and every ship in his command to make their best way towards the enemy. Making full use of the gale now blowing, the British fleet caught up with the French early in the afternoon and engaged them in battle, tearing into the rearguard that had yet to fully enter the Bay.
De Conflans then realised that with the British fleet baring down on him that he was in danger of being trapped in Quiberon Bay and so did his best to get out. Hawke however sailed his flagship the Royal George to engage his French counterpart the Soleil Royal and the French vanguard and prevented the break out. The fighting continued with the French getting the worst of it until darkness fell, and both sides were forced to make anchor as best they could as the storm raged during the night.
At dawn the next day eight ships of the French fleet managed to get away and reach the relative safety of Rochefort, but the rest were lost. Six ships had been taken or destroyed in the battle, a further seven had run aground as a result of the storm and damage sustained in the battle, including the French flagship the Soleil Royal. The British lost only the two ships, the Resolution and the Essex, both of which ran aground during the night.
The Consequences of the Battle
For the French the Battle of Quiberon Bay was a disaster; French naval power was decimated and the invasion plan placed on permanent hold, there was little the French could do to prevent Canada and many of their West Indian possessions falling into the hands of the British. (Britain nicked Florida off Spain as well for good measure.)
It was the major naval engagement of the Seven Years War, a conflict confirmed Britain as a major world power and more particularly confirmed Britain as the global naval superpower a position that it was to hold for the next century and a half.
The glory of the British flag has been nobly supported, while that of the enemy is vanished into empty air.
The Gentleman's Magazine, (December 1759), p. 557.
- The Oxford Paperback Encyclopedia at www.xrefer.com